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.

 

 

Pieces of my heart … random ramblings

The week has begun, rather inauspiciously. Last year at this time I was in Manhattan, proposing to a Russian hooker. One wonders why I’ve not been invited to join the current administration what with my fondness for and near immediate surrender to a fellow named Pavel, who didn’t charge me a dime by the way, because I didn’t know he was a hooker and … never mind, not important. Wasn’t the story I meant to tell.

Last year at this time I was in Manhattan and my first night there I saw She Loves Me, to which I was introduced many long years ago when I ran away to California, auditioned for the show, and was shamed by the audition death-panel of flannel-shirted, mustachioed gay men (it was 1979) who hit me with HUGE attitudes for not knowing who Barbara Cook was. After the audition — where it was made clear I was too light for the role and in danger of not being welcome into the group I thought would surely embrace me, GAY THEATRE MEN — I stopped at a Tower Records (remember those?) and bought Miss Cook’s Barbara Cook At Carnegie Hall, and started a love affair that has lasted lo these many decades. But my favorite song from She Loves Me was not on the Carnegie Hall album, so it was only later when I got the original cast recording that I discovered Where’s My Shoe; all of which long explanatory intro has to do with my inability this morning here in the final few days of my house/pet-sitting gig to find my shoe, and the memories of last year at this time being in New York, and the many decades I have always — in my head — both wished I lived in New York, wished I’d ever been embraced by a community of gay men, and, too, have always started singing Where’s My Shoe to myself whenever I go to put on shoes, all of which, this morning, for some reason, made me cry.

Actually, I probably know the reason. Last year at this time when I was in Manhattan I was scheduled to see Miss Barbara Cook at 54 Below. But, alas, the show was cancelled. I’m grateful to have seen her in concert twice in my life and I cried through both of those concerts. None of which has anything to do with crying this morning.

Last year at this time I proposed to Pavel because he told me he was here illegally, couldn’t return to Russia because he was gay and they would jail or kill him. Pavel, who had already been too sweet and kind to me in a fractured English that both filled and broke my heart, turned me down. He warned me that I was too nice, I was going to get used and hurt by people because I opened up my heart so quickly, I should not, he said, be so trusting and believe so much.

Last year at this time I opened my heart a lot on that trip. I met in person so many wonderful people I’d only known through social media. And I reunited with people, some new friends and some I hadn’t seen in years — one of whom had taken me to my first Barbara Cook concert. And it was a heart opening, perfect week when I trusted and believed and was healed rather than hurt.

But, Pavel, it turns out, was right. And wrong. For reasons wrapped up in a story I can never tell, I meant to tuck away and wall off my heart. A few people I trusted with my life, trusted with my love, had broken pieces of my heart for reasons in which they felt fully justified and that’s not mine to judge, I don’t claim to be a saint, I’ve made many mistakes, and I mean to throw no shade on nor assign any blame to them.

But, it turns out I am awful at closing off my heart. Or, rather, it turns out I am fantastic at being open-hearted and loving. Which comes with risks. And I take those risks. And sometimes I am taken by surprise to discover I have given a piece of my heart to someone — or, have given a piece of my heart to a someone who I’ve imagined into being, who I’ve layered around the shape and intentions of a real human being making up this pretend version of them I have created.

Or, have I?

I have been told by both a psychic and a mental health professional that my problem is not that I choose the wrong people to trust, but, rather, that I see to the centers of people, past the veneers and shells and layers of protection in which we all wrap ourselves. Oftentimes, we humans are not willing or able to operate from our centers.

So, just like it isn’t about me being bad at closing my heart, but instead, gifted at opening it, then in the same vein it isn’t that I don’t see, it’s that I see too much.

Which, I continue to think is a better way to be despite this latest little piece of me being broken. I’m not looking anymore to wall off my heart from hurt, I’m trying — instead — to peel away every layer and open myself to everything and everyone.

And I may not be in Manhattan, but, the week has only begun, and there are other ways and places in which to be happy. And a little crying never hurt anyone. Which is good, because since November, crying is my go-to response to any kindness, beauty, joining, or instances of love or light. We need as much as we can get right now to heal the world. And I think healing requires open hearts. And open hearts often involve tears.

I don’t really know what I’m trying to say. But I wanted to say it. Whatever it was, wrapped up in stories I can’t tell.

And, I found my shoes.

Love and light dear ones.

Reading: Who’s the idiot?

The Idiot, Elif Batuman, Hardcover, 423pp, March 2017, Penguin Press

April 7, morning

I am starting this write-up even though I’ve only reached page 159 of this 423 page novel. I am starting this because I am vacillating between surrender to the love of language and literature radiant in Elif Batuman’s prose and the increasingly insistent voice in my head importuning with some irritation, “Quit now! Nothing is ever going to happen in this novel.”

So, I thought I would take a break to consider in writing how I’m feeling about this book, and use this deliberation and meditation to make my decision.

I confess, part of my exasperation with this book is its diary-like detailing of the daily, and although Elif Batuman’s limning of the quotidian is artful, often insightful, and sometimes amusing, thus far, it is a tale being told by an emotional idiot, full of tessellation and decoration, signifying nothing.

Too, full disclosure, the more of it I read, the more I think: Why can’t my blog be turned into a novel? I’m a prolix emotional idiot myself, who can easily spew prettily for 423 pages about nothing. So, this is where I am so far, this far, 159 pages far, into The Idiot.

April 8, morning

Well, here it is almost exactly 24 hours later and I have labored my way through the last 264 pages of The Idiot and I am a bit disgruntled and a lot dissatisfied.

I feel much like I do when I’ve spent an evening with a much-praised as charming and brilliant friend of a friend who I’ve found to be a rambling, self-centered, somewhat pretentious bore whose tedious, soporific blethering has left me unmoved.

I found all of the characters tiresome to infuriating, and never cared what happened to any of them. There really is no plot, or, at best, a smidgen’s worth which is padded out with faux-literary prosaicism, bloated to a length screaming for prodigious editing.

While some have called the last sentence heartbreaking, I found it to be cruelly mocking; we’ve spent 423 pages and for what? Perhaps I am the wrong audience for this novel, but all this flood of words — no matter how artful some of them are — about nineteen year old Selin and her obsession with the older Ivan, their ludicrous dance around each other, and the mostly obnoxious and all charm-free characters they interact with along the way, was too fragmented, too long, too literarily twee, too MFA-graduate program show-offy, and too over-blurbed and praised.

I wish I’d stopped at page 159. Or, page 50 where I first considered putting it down.

 

 

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 (and Living): March out of here

I read 14 books in March, and have already written about 13 of them. [My book write-ups from March are HERE and HERE and HERE.] I’ll get to number fourteen in a paragraph or two. March had one brilliant five-star read and four gorgeous to frustratingly confounding four-star reads, so, all in all, lots to celebrate — including having survived he who shall not be named’s tireless and relentlessly, defiantly ignorant efforts to initiate nuclear winter; alas, we have not managed to avoid becoming the laughing-stock of the world, branded with the Scarlet A for assholes who elected this moron/bully/idiot/bigot. I didn’t vote for him. Just want that on record. Over and over. But, back to the thing I use to distract me from the seeming shit-show that is our reality right now (**more about this later in the post — or, rather, more about how I am surviving it); READING!

My fourteenth and final March read was at a disadvantage since I was suffering a book-love hangover from The Beast Is An Animal, my five-star amazement for the month [read what I wrote about it here]. I started and gave up on two books after The Beast Is An Animal, and was then recovered enough to finish this next one; but I am not sure I wasn’t still suffering the “well, it’s NOT The Beast Is An Animal” syndrome.

The Lost Book Of The Grail, Charlie Lovett, Hardcover, 336pp, February 2017, Viking

I’m a geekish fan of novels to do with books, Britain, and Arthurian Legends, so when I saw this novel on the New Releases shelf in the library, I grabbed it, grasping at the hope it would be the hat trick to cure my Beast hangover. Hmmm.

While I didn’t hate it, I was never really engaged by any of the stories from any of the many time periods in which the author put together the puzzle of the tale. I found the jumps in time somewhat confusing and difficult to follow, and, in particular, I found the modern-time plot line was so removed from the gothic-legend-located stories from the past, that the juxtapositioning and jumping was jarring. And the present day characters didn’t feel real to me, rather, they were somewhat stock: nerdy librarian, brilliant and beautiful love interest more emotionally mature than the protagonist, teaching him about love. It just didn’t work for me.

AND MARCH EXITS . . .

What a month. One day it was seventy degrees and the next we got the first actual, measurable snow of the winter. Which was almost spring. The time changed, but somehow time springing forward while the men in power seem determined to move it backward in such ugly, immoral ways, removing protections for the environment, the consumer, women, people of color, LGBTQ, and … well, you know the horrors being perpetrated by the fascistic cabal of hetero-privileged-wealthy white men making a last, desperate, fear-based, hateful grab for control of all the wealth in the world they don’t already have so as to continue the exploitation and domination of anyone not them.

**But I am not going to live in fear or panic. I spent much of the 1980s ruled by dread, dismay, and despair, because my friends were dying of AIDS and the government — much of the country — seemed almost gleeful to do nothing while we “not like them” suffered and died. It was a horrible time where much of what is worst about humanity was on display, in charge, and cruelly banging the drumbeat of fear of other as a means to power, a distraction used to hide their power and wealth grabbing. And, it seems, the same sort of thing is happening again.

However, having been through it once and taken to the streets in furious protest — which definitely has its place and purpose — I also have perspective enough to look back and see, now, in retrospect, that the tragedy of those times also brought out much of what is best about humanity. It was the outcry of dissent and the howl of our demands for equity and freedom to exist as ourselves, without shame or oppression, that gave birth to the energy of love and affirmation which brought us the rights and the world these new dictators and persecutors are so determined to destroy.

They can’t. It doesn’t work. Hate and obstruction and despotism never win. They can’t. Because it’s not who we are. It is not who anyone is. Even those promulgating this sorrowful agenda of fearful animosity and loathing for others are  — at their centers — made of the same Love and Light as we who love and affirm and embrace.

I am not making excuses for their actions. I do not accept their ignorance and continue to resist it, but, dear ones, this: if we answer them with hate, the same fearful awful malignancy of misguided animus driving them, then we never reach peace. From the ashes of the AIDS crisis — from the losses of which a part of me will never recover — rose victories of hope, passionate commitments to freedom and visibility and inclusion.

I believe — and believe we must believe — that while our resistance and objections and marching and vociferous, resounding outcry are absolutely necessary, we must do it all from a place of Love and Light; that we must not allow them to win by descending to the same sort of vitriol and assumption of evil in which they are drowning.

We are better than that. They are better than that. And in order for Love and Light to win, someone has to insist on it. We win by not losing ourselves to hate. We win by welcoming them to love, always, even as we block and repair the damage they want to do.

We live out loud and comfort and love one another and we have FAITH, which, to me, is not about a god, but about humanity; a belief that we are all — no matter how rotten and rancid and offensive we may appear to be — are, at our cores, made of the same Love and Light.

We get there by believing. We get there by faith. We get there by daily saying to ourselves, “Not perfect, not ideal, not even some days much fun, but, here we are, going.”

Love you people, truly.

The Spaces Between . . .

Yesterday I went to Wegman’s.

This would not warrant remarking but on New Year’s Eve 2016 because of an injudicious Tweet that might have been misconstrued as a threat to commit mass murder of the over-privileged and infuriatingly entitled who populate its aisles, Wegman’s sent the police to my door. Justifiably — or, self righteously — offended, I have avoided the store ever since.

But, yesterday felt like the right time to let that go.

Since mid-January of this year, I have been on what I have come to think of as an archeological excavation and restoration of my self and soul, through which I’ve discovered layers of pointless grudges and unfounded antipathies obfuscating the treasures of myself.

This exploration has been made possible because two months ago when the tragedy of the November election and January inauguration had driven me to daily weeping and near-nervous breakdown, a wonderfully empathetic medical professional gently convinced me to try taking an antidepressant, which I had resisted my entire life despite frequent suggestions I do so. The adjustment in my chemical make-up has freed up the energy I spent fighting the oppressive sorrow I felt. Each day of my pre-medication life was a struggle to resist the voice in my head saying, “You are a failed and horrible human being unworthy of love.” As well as what was my mantra as I hoped each day to die: “And then he killed himself.”

The quieting of those voices feels miraculous to me, Mr. MiracleCharlie, and has freed the space in my heart, head, and spirit, to let go the lists of grudges and angers and resentments I invented to wall me off from the world and distract me from what felt to me an agony of hopelessly impenetrable and incurable unhappiness and despair.

I may not be explaining this very well, but I needed to believe the world was a horrible place and its population awful, hateful, evil people so as to justify my depression. Of course I am unhappy, the world and people suck. And the person who sucked the most was me.

I’d buried the truth of my Love and Light beneath decades of ever increasing anhedonia and ennui; layers I tried to hide, keeping the depth of my misery from others who would — I had discovered — most often say something along the lines of, “Buck up. What do you have to be sad about?” I agreed with them, and had tried religions, meditation, diets, exercise, psychics, drinking and self-medication with illegal drugs, manic over-scheduling, and countless other desperate life-preservers, but still, I failed to cure or even control my wretched woefulness.

Pre-puberty, happy, accepting, believing Charlie.

Now, it has been — if not relieved — relaxed, reduced, unveiled as something that I was feeling, not something I was. I have begun to feel again as I did before puberty: Optimistic. Embracing. Believing. And most important; Accepting. I have returned to — or, remembered? reawakened? — the consciousness of my youth in which I see past what look like wrongs to an original intent of love. Perhaps it is Pollyanna-ish, but I believe people are fundamentally good, doing the best they can, and we all fall short sometimes — but for me, the worst thing I can do is judge someone else for their sometimes. I have had my own sometimes, many a short falling, and if I judge others and determine what I see as their shortfalls are unforgivable, than how can I expect to accept my own?

And who are any of us to decide someone else needs forgiving?

So, as the medication has unearthed the better-nature of the Charlie I left behind, I’ve faced and taken care of some relationship issues — some in person, and some the kind of things I needed to resolve in my mind because the people involved are gone from my life — in one way or another.

And so, yesterday, I went to Wegman’s because they sent law enforcement to my house in an effort to make sure their customers were being protected, not as an evil effort to violate my rights to free-speech in a fascist way.

Also, Wegman’s is right across the street from my gym. My gym, to which I’d returned after a three day absence. To which I’d returned because I’m on a house/pet-sitting gig and I could feel my sloth and weekend face-stuffing and Netflix binge watching of Grace and Frankie triggering my self-immolation tendencies. And now, the medication and the excavation of self has given me the strength to see these dips coming and interrupt them.

So, the gym. Confession: watching Grace and Frankie was, for some reason I didn’t quite understand, making me feel lonely. I needed to have human contact, not so much conversation as to be out in public, to feel the energy of other lives happening. I did the elliptical, I made my machines circuit, I elliptical-ed some more, during all of which I saw some beautiful men, which, like watching Grace and Frankie, was making me feel lonely.

I headed for the sauna. Blessedly empty. I was letting my loneliness happen, trying to figure it out, when into the sauna came the kind of man who pushes all my eroto-buttons: tall, very thin, dark hair, smooth chest, hairy legs, almost awkwardly large feet and hands, gawky, and young. He wore only black compression shorts and a white towel with black stripes. He asked me for the wood head-rest panel which was on the other side of me, by the wall, and he lay down and I told myself to stop looking, stop noticing the sweet little under-chin goatee and the perfect amount of underarm hair as he stretched them over his head, and the bulge in the shorts, and the way he rested his hand on it. STOP.

It had been less than a few minutes into his recline when someone came to the sauna door, held it open, had a conversation with someone outside the sauna, let the heat out, and never came in. Compression Shorts sat up, rearranged his bulge, and said, “I hate it when people do that. Let all the heat out. I mean, how stupid can you be?” This prompted a longer discussion about idiotic behaviors seen at the gym, the best times to come to miss said behaviors, and his launching into a man-splaining of how the sauna removes the toxins from your body and why the temperature had to be at a certain degree for a certain amount of time and on and on and I’d have paid attention except, 1)I don’t care, and 2)he was adjusting his bulge for much of the conversation.

And then, a tsunami of arrivals until the sauna was full — a truly rare event there on Saturday afternoons — and Compression Shorts had slid next to me, so close that our legs were touching. We outlasted everyone else, but even after they’d departed, he stayed leg-touching close beside me, and started another conversation about how all the ins and outs of the others had lowered the temperature again after we’d managed to get it so heated up in there, during which sentence he laughed and touched my leg in that jovial-ha-ha-funny-isn’t-it sort of way.

And it made me feel so lonely.

I waited another few minutes, not wanting him to think it was his touch that prompted my departure, and we kept talking, and then I said, “I think I’ve ejected enough toxins,my body needs to hang on to a few to keep going. I’m gonna hit the shower.” And he said, “Yeah, I think I will, too.”

I thought I knew what was going to happen next. I went to the shower. He got into the shower across from me after spending not a short amount of time in the aisle relieving himself of his compression shorts and freeing the bulge for more open adjustment. He left the curtain partway open. He started doing the sort of adjusting which results in exploding.

And it made me feel so lonely.

Don’t get me wrong, I remain a big fan of casual sex, no strings attached adventures, and I continue to be stunned when young, attractive guys wish to share bulges with me. So, I should have, and usually would have, but, this excavation of my soul and psyche has apparently disinterred a feature of my form I didn’t even know existed.

I want not to be lonely.

Compression Shorts was beautiful, and I am sorry I didn’t liaise with him. But letting go of grudges, interrupting the sorrow, alleviating the endless ache of depression, these have all opened up all of the room inside me where they used to crowd out the possibility of joy, and all of that new expanse, vast open territory wants to be filled.

All of those spaces between my agonies which used to be filled with anger and grudge and fear and hate, now, those spaces between, they are hungry for a connection of the kind I have never really had.

A hunger that yesterday translated from the wish for connection that would last longer than an orgasm in the gym shower into a physical hunger, an explosion of appetite. I had to have a bagel. And Wegman’s was right across the street. With delicious bagels. And though I am trying to diet, I am also trying to stay sane, and that hunger I had — like the depression I suffered — is not something I am or something that is going to consume me, but, rather, it is something I am feeling.

Confession: I am a little disappointed in me, which I know I need to process and get over, but, the thing is, I have been alone more or less my entire life — I am disappointed I am not better at it. You’d think, by now, all these decades in, I would be good at it. And, okay, stop it Charlie; in lots of ways I am good at it.

But, it is okay to feel. And it is okay to be hungry. And it is okay to explore these newly opened spaces between.

And so, my dears, 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

Update on Panic-Attack

In case you missed it, this morning I was having a panic attack — CLICK HERE — my first in quite a long time, and it was to do with the Motor Vehicle Administration having informed me that I would be unable to renew my registration or license because the State of Maryland had informed the MVA I owed back taxes — CLICK HERE FOR THAT POST.

Well, I finally heard from the MVA/State of Maryland with the information about what I owed and from when. It was from 2010. Seven years ago. And a very bad year 2010 was. I remember very little. I was not high functioning. I had left a very bad situation, in a hurry, gave up a lot, lost a lot, all necessary to save myself. It is very likely true I owe taxes from then, even though I distinctly remember paying off in installments some amount. But, I was very low on funds (which hasn’t changed, but that’s okay) and things were not making sense. Too, in the interim years, I have moved a few times, always in a hurry, and shortly after one of those moves my room was flooded and all my personal files (along with quite a few journals and my Joan Didion and Renata Adler signed first editions) were lost. So, I can’t prove anything even if there is anything to prove, which, I’m pretty sure there isn’t.

Fairly certain — like 99% — I owe this. From seven years ago. Luckily, they have not tacked on interest and penalties. Good news is, it’s less than it might have been. Bad news is, it’s more than I have. Good news is, they’ve set up a payment plan. Bad news (or funny news) is, the first payment is due ON MY BIRTHDAY.

Oh. Life.

But, I have a house/pet sitting job starting Thursday through Sunday. And another starting next week that is two weeks long. And some summer bookings. And things work out sooner or later, one way or another. And while my chest is still tight tonight (and my rash is still not gone) I am better than I was this morning and I managed to get through the day and finish a book blogging post — CLICK HERE — and keep my stress hidden from my Mom.

And, the Zakar Twins posted a new photo of themselves. In knitted jockstraps. Life is good.

So, win win win and happy approaching birthday and here I am, going.

But going in a positive, affirming way. And not gone in the sad, final way I had so long been contemplating and planning.  And that is, indeed, a miracle, Charlie.