Reading: Oh good laud

Since last we spoke I’ve read Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award winner in the fiction category, written by Jesmyn Ward; Duke of Desire, the 12th in the Maiden Lane series, written by Elizabeth Hoyt; and Killer Characters, the 8th (and final) in the Books by the Bay series, written by Ellery Adams. These three are labeled respectively as Literary Fiction, Romance, and Mystery Cozy. I’m not much a fan of labels though I understand their purpose for marketing’s sake, but I feel like with books, as with people, we limit and stunt and marginalize and stereotype by this need to name and define and draw lines. More on that later. First —

(NOTE: If you would like to move directly to my discussion of the books above and skip the context in which I read them, the details of my life, and the musings of my mind, head down the page to the  #*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*)

— let me begin by saying I continue my  quest to interrupt my life-long proclivity for making lemons from lemonade, trying instead to add a splash of vodka, some ginger beer, and sip whilst taking a deep breath and long pause, finding and enjoying the plus rather than the minus, before indulging in any “woe is me”-ing or “the universe/world is against me”-ing or whining about first world frustrations.

Here comes the “but” you knew was on the way: I am sitting here beneath a lap-robe, feet freezing, my stomach having again started its roiling and cramping  (if you’re new here I won’t bore you with the three-year ongoing saga) and although the year-long mystery rash has finally begun to fade, the dermatologist and rheumatologist disagree with one another over why and what to do next, tut-tutting at the diagnoses and guesses of the other, while my primary care practice continues to acquire and shed PAs so regularly I never see the same person twice and so need give them my entire history each time I go for my three-month Wellbutrin renewal. All of which may soon become moot if 45 and his gop-jackbooted-bully-brigade achieve their nefarious undoing of ACA, upending Medicaid and Medicare, at which point I will lose the little access to healthcare I have — which is still a lot more access than many have and for which I am grateful.

This will all, of course, be beside the point once the above mentioned fascist horrors who are now running and ruining (notice, only one letter difference there) the country start imprisoning the LGBTQ, to be annihilated in death camps along with all the other people disapproved of by the white-cis-male power-mongrels, the long-term goal of the gop begun with nixon’s “southern strategy” come long last to fruition.

And all of this is the result — I think — of a concentrated effort by those in power from time immemorial to divide into US and THEM, to convince we peasants that there is enough for us, we who deserve, if only they, those who are not worthy, would stop taking what is rightfully ours. And the next step after propagandizing that divisive foundation, is to spin reality as a competition — a race, a war — to come out on top, in control, with the most. Winning is now paramount, and all talk of morality or righteousness or one or another god directing the way is complete and utter bullshit, hypocrisy made abundantly and inarguably clear by the election of 45, continued support for the ephebophile running for the senate in Alabama, the determined decimation of the safety net for the less advantaged, the refusal to seriously investigate the collusion with foreign powers in stealing the election of 2016, and on and on.

And this is all because we have fallen for the division mythology rather than living in the light and love of recognizing that we are all, at heart and soul, alike. One. Which, too, is why I hesitate to label and categorize books. I love good writing, no matter what the genre. I also get that my taste is mine, and others are entitled to their own; for example, my Mom, who I supply with large print books, reads authors I don’t enjoy at all, whose work I might even categorize as trashy, and that’s okay. See, I watch The Real Housewives of New York, Beverly Hills, and Orange County, which all of my friends find trashy. But, they make me laugh. They make me horrified. They are, to me, camp and parody of all that is wrong with the gop-45-entitled-jackbooted-hater run world in which we live.

We get what we need where we can. And so, 800 words later, what I mean to say is I don’t question that Sing, Unburied, Sing deserves many encomiums and lauds, and I’m all for anything that increases book sales, but it would be great if maybe we could all expand our fields of vision a little wider than just the books that get buzz, win awards, get picked by People magazine and well-reviewed (or, even, reviewed at all) in The New York Times. If we could enlarge our own worlds, read outside the genre and labels we think are our thing, embrace work by authors from other walks of life than just the paths with which we are familiar, then, maybe, just maybe, we could start a revolution of joining?

Maybe, just maybe, trying to see the world through lenses other than our own, will help us all to realize and really live the truth that, ultimately, we are all one. Because, I fear, if we can’t soon get there, to where we are all one, what will be left is that we are all none.

Now, on to the books I’ve read.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward, Hardcover, 285pp, September, 2017, Scribner

Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2017, and written about and lauded by those far more erudite, professorial, and literary-wise than am I, since reading this I’ve hesitated to even share my thoughts, thinking to do so superfluous. Do I think you should read it? Yes. Would I have chosen it for Fiction Award 2017? I don’t think so, because I wouldn’t — couldn’t choose. This is why I think awards are silly. There is no “best book” in any category. There are wonderful books of every kind, books that are someone’s favorite, change someone’s mind or heart or life, open eyes, bring a much needed laugh, have a cathartic effect, but there is no one book that is best for everyone. Too, awards tend to glorify books already in the mainstream, already buzzed, by authors already known (and I’m not saying their fame is undeserved or unearned), while books of equal artistry and beauty languish unread, head to remainder piles and ninety-nine cent plus shipping sale on Amazon.

That said, this book is beautiful, captivating, riveting, unique of voice, glorious of prose bordering on poetry, and much deserving of all the accolades it has received. A pastiche of magic realism, ghost story, history lesson, gothic tragedy, probing sociological examination, road novel, and prose poem, Jesmyn Ward’s lyrical, evocative language is revelatory and her artistry joins what might have been impossibly confused disparate motifs into a panoptic chiaroscuro portrait both intensely personal and universal.

JoJo, a boy on the brink of adolescence, and his baby sister, Kayla, are taken on a road trip by their drug-addicted black mother, Leonie, to pick up her white husband, Michael, about to be released from Parchman prison. Michael’s cousin murdered Leonie’s brother, whose ghost comes to her when she is high, and at Parchman, Jojo begins to be stalked by the ghost of Richie, who was a doomed prisoner in Parchman with Jojo’s beloved grandfather, Pop, and uses Jojo to get back to Pop  so he might tell Richie of his fate, of his death, so that he could be released from the netherworld in which so many unburied souls are trapped, their songs unable to be sung.

There are more characters, more complications, layer after layer of connection and disconnect, an epic of multiple epochs, a richness and depth of biblical, Proustian size, miraculously communicated in a book less than 300 pages long. There is so much beautiful language, to begin quoting is dangerous, so I will share just this paragraph, near the end of the novel, which is as beautiful as an aria of grand opera. Listen to the ghost of Richie explaining what he sees:

Across the face of the water, there is land. It is green and hilly, dense with trees, riven by rivers. The rivers flow backward: they begin in the sea and end inland. The air is gold: the gold of sunrise and sunset, perpetually peach. There are homes set atop mountain ranges, in valleys, on beaches. They are vivid blue and dark red, cloudy pink and deepest purple. They are yurts and adobe dwellings and teepees and longhouses and villas. Some of the homes are clustered together in small villages: graceful gatherings of round, steady huts with domed roofs. And there are cities, cities that harbor plazas and canals and buildings bearing minarets and hip and gable roofs and crouching beasts and massive skyscrapers that look as if they should collapse, so weirdly they flower into the sky. Yet they do not.

This continues and builds for another paragraph and a half until the vision disappears and then:

Then darkness. I look to my left and see that world again, and then it is gone. I claw at the air, but my hands strike nothing; they rend no doorways to that golden isle.

Absence. Isolation. I keen.

Though it may be the voice of a ghost child, an innocent denied the life he deserved, it is the song unsung of every human being who has suffered the incomprehensible loss of self in a world they cannot seem to understand, the wail and moan of longing for a place of peace only imagined, never experienced.

Yes, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a brilliant book, a book written from the soul that speaks to the soul and worthy of all praise. Though, as I said, I am not fond of the good/better/best ratrace, certainly this is among the best books of the past year.

Duke of Desire (Maiden Lane 12), Elizabeth Hoyt, Mass Market Paperback, 308pp, October 2017, Grand Central Publishing

Lady Iris Jordan is kidnapped, a case of mistaken identity, and while being carried away from the scene of her planned debauching by a beautifully formed one of her supposed captors, she shoots him, only to find he is her rescuer. Both of their lives are now in danger for having crossed The Lords of Chaos, and so she and The Duke of Dyemore wed to save her reputation and her life. But this does little good and they are both pursued, captured, in danger, and finally, in love, secrets revealed, promises made, passions surrendered to (a lot) in this marvelous addition to Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series.

Killer Characters (Books by the Bay Mysteries #8), Ellery Adams, Paperback, 274pp, May 2017, Berkley Books

Olivia Limoges is a restaurant owner, aspiring novelist, member of the Bayside Book Writers’ group, and recently married to local police chief, Rawlings. Another member of the Bayside Book Writers, Laurel, is accused of murdering her husband’s mistress, the hospice nurse for his dying mother who never had a kind word for Laurel. Before long another murder occurs, connected to the first, and the Bayside Writers set about clearing Lauren, endangering themselves, crossing Olivia’s husband, Chief Rawlings, and putting themselves in danger — for one, mortal danger. This is the last in what seems to have (deservedly) been a popular series and I quite enjoyed it, and I wonder how much more I’d have liked it if I had grown to know the characters and the town of Oyster Bay through the preceding seven installments? I figured out whodunnit fairly early, but I was still surprised by the ending. Nicely done if a bit heavier and darker than most mystery cozies.

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So, there we have it: one prizewinner and two final installments in popular series. Wildly different reading experiences, all enjoyable in their own way, each with something unique to offer, all worth a read if they are your kind of thing. And maybe, even, if you don’t think they would be, give them (or something else outside your comfort zone) a shot. Make the world bigger and kinder and more open and embracing by starting with the books you read.

It can’t hurt. And it might help. And it’s laudable.

And here I am, going. Love and light, dear ones.

 

Reading: 2 Books, 2 Very Different Killers

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

All joy was thin ice to Sister Lucy.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Reading: Before Everything by Victoria Redel

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

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

From the publisher:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, we both screwed up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Reading: On the Rebound: What to Read After Ann Patchett

Catching up on the six books I’ve read since my last bookblog. What these reads have in common was having been recommended by either IRL lit pals or virtual/bloggy/TwitLit types or by nominating committees. I listened to what they said. And here we are, going.

It was September 27th when last I book blogged and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth [click here] had left me sated but worried; after one has been pleasured by the gifts of a brilliant author, pity the rebound books to which one turns saying, “Well, they’re not Ann Patchett, but a person’s got to read something.”

This time my strategy was to begin by heading to my backlist, those books published at least a decade ago which have been recommended to be but to which I’ve not gotten round. I also thought it would be wise to switch from the literary fiction genre and, too, to cross the pond, thereby starting with a British mystery originally published in 1944.

THE CASE OF THE GILDED FLY, Edmund Crispin, hardback, originally published 1944, 237 pages  This is the first in a series of what have been called “classic murder mysteries” featuring the Oxford don Gervase Fen, an erudite, sardonic amateur detective, sort of Miss Marple on steroids and gin. Edmund Crispin is a pseudonym used by Robert Bruce Montgomery, a composer who wrote film scores including ones for the comedic Carry On series and the inexplicable The Brides of Fu Manchu. It was short and fast and quite self-consciously clever, terribly wink and sniggle, aren’t we all witty, wink, wink, let’s have a quick tipple what say? It’s clear Crispin enjoyed having the genre and readers on. Plot: theatre company. Not nice actress murdered. Everyone had a reason. Locked room sort of vibe. But the plot was its own sort of in-joke and I did have a bit of trouble keeping the many characters clear, and I had to look up quite a few unfamiliar words and references, which always delights me. That said, I read it over three days and wish I’d saved it for a snowy afternoon, I think it would have gone down more smoothly that way. Will I read another in the series? Good question. I think if I could find used library copies I might add them to my Great Sphinx of Giza sized TBR wonder-pile, but getting them plucked from there and into my hands? Not sure. Continue reading

Reading: Ann Patchett’s COMMONWEALTH

commonwealth

COMMONWEALTH, by Ann Patchett, hardcover, 336 pages, HarperCollins

After many years of much noise and bustle, I made a decision to redefine myself. I now lead a life of quiet observation; mindfully uncluttered, simple of purpose: to find meaning in being present, unfettered by restrictive societal presumptions and biases, apart from the culture of acquisitiveness and achievement, resisting the urge to collect and accumulate stuff.

That said, there are some things I feel I must own, like new releases by Ann Patchett. So, despite my determinedly (and necessarily) reduced and frugal life-rejiggering, I pre-ordered Ms. Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, from my dear, local indie bookstore, The Curious Iguana, who lovingly saved me a signed first edition.

So much for me not being acquisitive. But readers, forgive me. It’s Ann Patchett. And so you understand what this choice means, the cost of a hardcover book is almost as much as I make for a day of house/pet-sitting. That said, I understand the ability to buy a book at all means I’ve a life of privilege many other people in the world do not have and I am extremely grateful for that.

Now, on to the novel. Here is what is Continue reading

READING: Nathan Hill’s THE NIX (and a few others)

I’ll be talking about four books today; IN MIKE WE TRUST by P.E.Ryan; HOME BY NIGHTFALL by Charles Finch; THE WOMAN IN CABIN TEN by Ruth Ware; and my favorite of this post, the very good THE NIX by Nathan Hill. You can click on any of the titles in red below to be taken to either the publisher’s page or the author’s page for the books. Enjoy.

in-mike-we-trustIN MIKE WE TRUST, by P.E.Ryan, hardcover, 366 pages, Harper Teen

After having reveled in the glories of Patrick Ryan’s The Dream Life of Astronauts, I worried the next author I read would be at an unfair disadvantage. So, what did I do? Followed up with Mr. Ryan’s — this time writing as P.E.Ryan — young adult novel, In Mike We Trust.

15-year-old Garth and his emotionally and financially stressed Mom are adjusting to a smaller life when the identical twin of Garth’s deceased father, Mike, a sort of prodigal brother/mysterious black sheep, arrives on the scene. Garth has recently come out as Gay to his best friend, Lisa, and to his Mom, the latter of whom wishes him to keep it quiet until he’s older, refusing even to discuss it with him. Mike shakes up the fearfully circumscribed world in which Garth and his Mom have mourned themselves into in ways that alarm Garth’s Mom, Lisa, and finally, Garth himself who is also falling for Lisa’s friend, Adam, further complicating matters.

This is a very fast read (with a slow-ish start) and, like I said, after The Dream Life of Astronauts, nothing stood a chance with me. I liked this well enough but something about Mike felt unfinished to me, as if the author meant him to be more, or to go in a different direction originally, but was convinced not to. In general, the characters and the story felt underdeveloped and too plotted and planned at the same time, unlike Astronauts, which was full of surprises and breathtaking realities, this felt predictable and not really from the truth of a heart.

home-by-nightfallHOME BY NIGHTFALL (Charles Lenox Mysteries #9), by Charles Finch, Hardcover, 304 pages, Minotaur Books

I have read only one other in this series, a much earlier installment. The aristocratic Mr. Lenox, in 1876 London, having Continue reading

READING: Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

Tuesday Nights in 1980Tuesday Nights in 1980, by Molly Prentiss, Hardcover, 336 pages, April 2016, Gallery/Scout Press

Book-reading is sort of like dating — or, in my case, tricking — and it was eleven adventures ago when last I blogged about what I’ve been picking up. Like tricks, I often find my books on-line. I troll blogs and reviews, follow a lot of authors and publishing folk on social media, and — as with men — I am easily sucked in by a clever precis, a catchy tagline, or a promise of what I’ll find if only I open myself to the experience: “Clean/DDF/athletic/amazing oral skills/8 inches cut” and “Genius/Brilliant debut/Compelling/Marvelous and Moving!” are markedly similar in their likelihood to be at least partially hyperbolic. But, such is my affirming and positive nature that as with CraigsList and Grindr assurances,  rather than live in bitter-world where I assume everyone is lying, instead, I consider book blurbs to be exercises in aspiration. Yes, with men and literature, I am ever hopeful.

So, as with my recent adventures in tricking, I greeted each of the last eleven books with a sense of hope, heart open, ready to be delighted and enchanted, to bask in the “ahhh, yes” feeling, pulled in, engaged, absorbed, and caressed to a finish which — if not happy, then at least fulfilling.

Alas, again, as with men, those eleven books — while none of them were awful — didn’t really give me the joy-explosion for which I was waiting.

Then came Molly Prentiss’s Tuesday Nights in 1980 and huzzah, I’m in love again.

Were I blurbing, I would say, “Molly Prentiss debut novel, Tuesday Nights in 1980, is a must read. Gorgeous. Assured. Evocative. Moving. Skilled. Original. Satisfying.” I would link you to the Simon & Schuster page for the book but I find one of the sentences in the New York Times review they quote to be unnecessarily mean to a celebrity, so, I refuse. But if you click the link below, you can watch the author talk about the book:

https://player.theplatform.com/p/kYEXFC/wTf63dxl0IpC/select/media/njDiiG1lFYw4?t=23

The novel focuses on a year in the life of James Bennett, art critic for the New York Times; Raul Engales, artist and Argentinian exile; and Lucy Olliason, Idaho exile aspiring to be . . . more. The fourth main character in the book is Manhattan itself; its art scene, its energy, its cornucopia of opportunity, possibility, and experience are the canvas on which the ups, downs, gains, and losses — oh the losses — of James, Raul, and Lucy are painted.

Much has been made of Ms. Prentiss fascinating exploration of James’s synesthesia. (Note: so skilled, honest, and insightful is Ms. Prentiss’s writing that one feels on a first name basis with her characters. I felt invested in each of them, even when I disliked what they did, how they behaved, still, like friends, I cared, I worried, I wanted them to be happy. Maybe not near me — but, happy.) His neural pathways are constructed that his senses interact crossways: a smell may cause him to see a color; a color might create for him the sound of a symphony; a sound may cause him to taste chocolate cake; any sensory input might produce actual, tactile, audible (to him) phenomena and experience outside the “norm”for most of the rest of the world. It is remarkable the way Ms. Prentiss limns James’s way of seeing, the glorious flights of fancy, which elide into her descriptions of the city as a body, painting its portrait (as it were) in sensations and words and tastes and brilliant brush-strokes of unexpected prose. For James, his synesthesia is a gift, and without spoiling things for you, he must live a life worthy of the gift, or lose it, and if he does lose it — his gift of uniqueness — who is he?

That question (in my reading, anyway) was the foundation of this marvelous novel. And it wasn’t just James with his synesthesia, but also Raul with his artistic gifts, and Lucy with her naiveté, her beauty,  and her ability to open herself to possibility, all of them struggling to be worthy of the best of who they were in a world they were simultaneously creating and trying to survive.

In other words: Life.

Ms. Prentiss has managed to take a particular time and milieu — the Manhattan art scene of 1980 — and make it universal. You needn’t be interested in art or a devotee of Haring, Warhol, Basquiat, et al, to find the profoundly transformative journeys of these characters riveting, you need only be alive and struggling to find the best use of your gifts in the world, to live a life you feel worthy of the possibilities you’ve been given, to wake each day and wonder about the path you’re on, the people you love — or try to love — and the things you’ve done and haven’t done, accomplished and failed at, in order to experience all the senses of this marvelous, insightful, heart and soul-provoking novel.

For me, after a long eleven-book-long dry spell,the fascinating story of self-discovery, self-doubt, redemption and life-altering decisions of this thrilling debut (sounds like a blurb, doesn’t it?) tasted like clear blue sky after weeks of rain, sounded like Italian espresso after a long morning of struggling with words, unable to put together a coherent sentence, felt like the warm caress of Barbara Cook singing a Sondheim ballad, read like the relief of finally hooking up with a fellow who delivered the promised athletic body and eight skilled inches — that last bit being not the least bit synesthetic but ties in with the start of this thing. LOOK PEOPLE, I’m not the brilliant debut novelist — if you want gorgeous prose that makes sense and moves you, quick, get yourself a copy of Molly Prentiss’s Tuesday Nights in 1980 right the hell now.

Love and Light, kids. And thanks Ms. Prentiss for giving me faith in debut novels again.

P.S. On re-reading this, I realize that I forgot to mention one other really important feature of the work — the secondary characters are as well-developed and intriguing as the main characters. James’s wife Marge, Raul’s artist friend Arlene, gallery owner Winona, Lucy’s roommate Jamie, and others, Arlene, Lupa, on and on, beautifully done.

Reading: Ten February(ish) reads

I’ve been thinking more and more that less and less of life requires comment, or, my comment. Thus, my long run of having written about each book I read shortly after having read it came to an end.  Too, I started a Pinterest page (and you can click here to visit) and my first board was about what I was reading. Pinterest allows only five-hundred characters of copy for each photo so I’ve been limited to short, concise exegeses of my impressions about my reads. That has been somewhat liberating. I considered letting this blog become — again — solely an existential traipsing through my dysthymia and adventure in going further and further (or, is that farther and farther? No. Further is metaphorical and I suppose my retreat from the conventions of modern-life is more metaphor than actual physical travel and distancing.) off the grid, but, I know some of you are interested in what I think about books and not everyone has a Pinterest account — I resisted for as long as I could but the opportunity to collect pictures of sexy Marlon Brando and men with tattoos and people’s personal reading nooks finally defeated me — so, here I am, going back into writing about what I’ve read, albeit, in shorter form. (I think. You hope.)

Chee Queen of the NightTHE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT, by Alexander Chee, Hardcover, 561 pages, February, 2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt This was the third in a troika of books by gay writers to which I had very much been looking forward. (The first two were Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You and Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door – read about them HERE.) Unlike the other two, Night isn’t built around a gay person, although it does take place in the world of opera, which is about as gay a milieu as one can visit – but, strangely (to me) this narrative lacked gay content. It lacked little else. Chee managed to create a huge world, a huge life, there is detail and dynamic enough for a few books. Well reviewed and much heralded by the literary literati, it is delightful that three gay authors have experienced so much success already this year. Happiness. I bought this because I wanted, very much, to support Mr. Chee. When I checked with library about availability (which I routinely do for books in which I am interested, to see if others are reading them too) I saw they had only two copies and the wait was eight weeks. I donated my copy after reading.

Those We Left BehindTHOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, by Stuart Neville, Hardcover, 320 pages, September, 2015, Soho Crime  I love the escape of crime procedurals, the comfort of a returning character, in particular one with flaws and peccadilloes, so I am always giving new series a chance, hoping to find the next “go to” sort of solace I like between heavier reads. This is the first to feature Irish DCI Serena Flanagan, and both she and probation officer Paula Cunningham were well-developed, interesting. The plot concerned two doomed brothers, one a sociopath, the other his victim, and had some twists, some supposed-to-be surprises. It was a quick read, nicely done. I think I will likely give its next entry a go. Borrowed from library.

eileenEILEEN, by Ottessa Moshfegh, Hardcover, 272 pages, August, 2015, Penguin Press As I said in my Pinterest blurb, this was an extremely unpleasant story full of extremely unpleasant characters, without even a hint of redemption or joy. I found it to be unkind. I don’t know how else to describe the experience and I am sorry to be so negative, but I would not recommend this to anyone. Just ugly. The author was compared to Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith — both of whom I admire and enjoy — its milieu said to be evocative of David Lynch’s filmic work — much of which in small doses has fascinated me — but, for me, this bore little similarity to the works of those auteurs. It was relentlessly bleak of heart (which it meant to be, so, congratulations) and mean of spirit (which it meant to be, so congratulations) and strove to be tongue-in-cheek but, instead, was snide and cruel. It is censoring, I suppose, to say that life is too short and dark enough already without spending my time in a fictive world of such dark, soulless, venomous, ferocious despair — so be it, I don’t need this sort of energy in my life. Borrowed from library.

american housewifeAMERICAN HOUSEWIFE: STORIES, by Helen Ellis, Hardcover, 208 pages, January, 2016, Doubleday  I quite enjoyed this collection of twelve pieces — I wouldn’t call all of them stories — that were frequently funny, and often trenchant without trying too hard. Had I to read it again, I’d have spread them out rather than reading all at once, as in, Ellis is a writer whose work I’d like to come across regularly in magazine — her take on life is amusing and insightful — but consuming it all at once, I think it lost some of its power. So, yes, quite good, but read one a week or so, not in toto. Borrowed from library.

 

Vaschss AftershockAFTERSHOCK: A THRILLER, by Andrew Vachss, Hardcover, 368 pages, June, 2013, Pantheon  This was another first in a crime series. I gave it a try because I read many of the author’s Burke series, years ago, suggested to me back then by my dear, departed brother-in-law. So, I picked this up out of sentiment. Vigilante justice — no matter how heinous the criminal — not my thing anymore, and Dell, the main character, like Burke (who he very much resembles) takes the law into his own hands, doing away with scum. Well, I suppose it’s a release for my baser instincts to read about such a thing, but, killing is killing, and if you become the killer — even of those who are horrid — you are still a killer and horrid yourself. As I’ve aged, my ability to read about ugliness decreases (see review of Eileen above). In this, as I mentioned, ugliness is answered with vigilante ugliness and when I find myself cheering for the murder of even villains, I question reality and such and so, no. Also, tenses and grammar often purposely incorrect for “voice” – even for voice, it gnaws at me. Borrowed from library.

Hadley The PastTHE PAST, by Tessa Hadley, Hardcover, 320 pages, January, 2016, Harper  I love Tessa Hadley’s writing. She is an incisive stylist and observer of people, love, connections, desire, and despair. In this tale of siblings gathered to decide whether to sell the family home, each dealing with its histories and echoes in different ways, the ghosts of the past becoming the characters of the present – it’s divided into Present/Past/Present structure – the how we get here and how we fall apart and how we mistake the shapes of love, are so well done, it felt to me as if Hadley had met my family. She has a gift for making specific the universal. Wonderful book. Borrowed from library.

 

Williams, Diane Fine Fine FIne FIne FineFINE, FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE, by Diane Williams, Hardcover, 131 pages, January, 2016, McSweeney’s  Hmm. Collection of short – very short – stories. Gloriously languaged, chock-full of sharp-edged imagery, these stories are like shards of something broken one tries to piece together into a whole. Bleeding ensues. I liked it but a little “Emperor’s New Clothes” hipness & WTF?  Some of these were simply beyond comprehension, or, even, sense — another in a plethora of late of what seem to me exercises in journaling given publication. I should very much life my existential ramblings and prose-poems to be gathered together and  put between hard-covers and huzzah-ed as the big thing by the literati. I don’t begrudge Ms. Williams her publication – but, like I said, some (even, much) of this was sort of – “okay, but, why?” (Full disclosure: Every year I enter the McSweeney’s columnist competition and every year I lose. So, bitter much? Maybe.) Borrowed from library.

after the parade ostlundAFTER THE PARADE, by Lori Ostlund, Hardcover, 340 pages, September, 2015, Scribner   I wanted to read this because Ms. Ostlund had won the Edmund White award. Well written but awfully sad study of the many kinds of love and loneliness and abandonment: parent/child, friends, lovers. Struck personal chords for me about needing to leave someone as a matter of saving one’s own self & soul and being manipulated by someone who confuses love with control. I was irritated because my local library does NOT have it. I ordered a bargain ($2) copy from the evil empire and then donated it — when I’d finished reading — to library.

 

Oliver, Mary FelicityFELICITY, by Mary Oliver, Hardcover, 96 pages, October, 2015, Penguin Press  I am only just beginning to read poetry on a regular basis after many years of not having done so. In the long ago it was Erica Jong and Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara and Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay and Patti Smith and Rimbaud. The theme of this slim volume is love, of the romantic and nature varieties. I am not much a believer in romantic love – its categorization outside and over and above other loves – especially lately I am annoyed by the cultural insistence on its primacy – and nature I can take or leave as well, I refer smog and city sounds, so, perhaps I am the wrong person to talk about this book. On the other hand, Oliver’s facility with language, the spare beauty of her imagery, quite stunning. But then again, given my general ignorance about poetry (I am studying now) and love (I am a life-failure and no amount of study will remedy that, this I have accepted), don’t listen to me about poetry. Borrowed from library. (Still have it, actually, plan to renew all five allowed times as I continue to re-read, examine, think – because, it’s poetry.)

Pinckney, Darryl Black DeutschlandBLACK DEUTSCHLAND: A NOVEL, by Darryl Pinckney, Hardcover, 294 pages, February, 2016, Farrar, Straus and Giroux  Not going to lie, I had a tough time getting through this. I got it because it was blurbed by Edmund White and compared to Isherwood. No. Aside from troublesome syntax and construction, it really didn’t have anything to say (to me) & far too much meandering detail, seeming — again — as if the narrative was interrupted with pieces from his journals about which Mr. Pinckney said, “Oh, this is lovely” and wanted to use but which added nothing. It needed to be better edited and the time jumping was unclear, a muddle. I kept falling asleep while I read it and wishing I had stopped early on. The last eighty pages were such a slog, but I was determined. Again, sorry to be negative, but Mr. Isherwood’s Berlin Stories is one of my favorite books and to compare this to that, well, no.  Borrowed from library.

And now, I am up to date on up-to-dating you on my reading. I know, dears, quite a lot of comment for one who says he is questioning the need to comment at all on anything, and just more dumping on the grid for one who says he is considering further grid-self-removal. But, if I am nothing else — and certainly not a McSweeney’s columnist — I am a conundrum (or two or dozens). In any event, I leave you with this — because, you know, I may not believe in love, but I do believe in fantasy love.

 

Brando shirt on

And with that, darlings, dear ones, loves, lights, here I am, going.

READING: All about me and, oh, right, Dear Mr. You, by Mary-Louise Parker

Mary-Louise Parker Dear Mr. You

[I do FINALLY talk about the book about 1500 words in. Marked in red, down the page.]

DEAR MR. YOU, Mary-Louise Parker, Hardcover, 240 pages, Scribner

I’ve cobbled together a complex and recondite personal cosmology, imagined into being during decades of this autodidactic wayfaring, any(every?)-port-in-a-storm wandering (wondering?) and rambling I call “My Life” with its digressions and deviations and diversions and driftings; all of which is prologue to this: I consider time to be largely an illusory crutch required by those who need lines, labels, and margins to keep things like reality and emotions safely-sized and manageable, easy to digest. If I’ve any goal other than be here, going, in every moment, with as much Love and Light as possible, it is to eschew lines, labels, and margins and the world requiring them as much as I can, to see to the essence of all that is behind and beyond and beneath all those measures we use to try to tame it.

(I am not unaware the above makes me sound a patchouli wearing, weed-smoking, hippie throwback, but, there I go with the labels again. P.S. I am none of those things. Not that I’ve anything against any of those things.)

So, New Year traditions — they mean little to me. I don’t do resolutions. And as far as the Bacchanalia and orgies of drunken foolery on its Eve; fireworks, balls dropping and crowds, oh my! Thus, on December 31, I returned to my home base from two weeks of house/pet sitting and planned on spending a quiet evening with my sister — well, not with exactly, as she is having an intimate relationship with The Walking Dead, and so was enraptured by its marathon, while I meant to enjoy Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin from Times Square, so — with me in my batcave and she in her living room recliner, 2016 would plod right in, mostly un-remarked save for one glass (for me) of cheap champagne. However, despite the humdrum, torpid, hibernating life I live, and the speeding, drunken, criminally boisterous fools terrorizing the land that night (and in the presidential election process), turned out I had managed to Tweet in a way warranting a visit from local law enforcement types. Here I thought a pizza was being delivered, opened the door in glee at the speed with which my large-Italian meat-special had arrived, and standing before me was a medium-sized-Scottish-meat special of an entirely different kind.

Anyway, I already described in my Twitter TL my visit from the Scottish-accented gendarme I briefly thought was a stripper sent by friends  [I’m MIRACLECHARLIE on Twitter, click here] and won’t go through it again except to say I’m not sure six days later how I feel about it: Abashed. Abused. Affronted. Agitated. Alarmed. Amused. Angry. Annoyed. Ashamed. And that’s just some of the A-words. All of which have been conflagrating in my consciousness ever since, blazing and searing alongside holiday-feels, family behavior-feels, back-pain, odd explosions of intense loneliness, many dream-visits from the dead, and many of my buttons being pushed, including those I thought no longer pushable, result being a combustion of moody-existential questioning and even more weepiness than is usual for me.

All of this because a word I used in a Tweet about the entitled-asshat Whole Foods but with less crunchy granola and patchouli vibe shoppers who terrorize its aisles, pissed off Wegman’s.

A word. By which I was judged. A word. For which I was hunted down on New Year’s Eve and lectured and threatened and reproached. One word from a Twitter timeline which is generally full of Love and Light and Peace. Which I said to the very sexy Scottish flasher (alas, of badge only):

“If you can waste time enough to locate me from a Tweet, surely you’ve looked into me enough to know I never have and never would own or use a weapon of any kind and am one of the least likely persons on the face of the earth to harm another human being.”

Answer from ScottyHottie:

“Well, obviously. If I thought you were a real danger this would be a very different conversation.”

At which point I said:

“Unless you intend to arrest me, get out. You’ve irritated me by being a tool of a huge corporation trying to intimidate me out of speaking my mind. I didn’t threaten anyone. Read the Tweet. And this is a huge waste of time and money in a world full of awful, heinous people, most of them running for the Republican Presidential nomination, and especially on a night when the roads and bars are full of people who are actually dangerous. I’m insulted and annoyed and you don’t get to call me irresponsible.”

He huffed and puffed, Scottishly, which was cute-ish, and went on his way.

A word.

Here’s the thing: I love words. I believe in the power of words to move people, to change things, to influence and advocate and, yes, harm and destroy. But, back to that convoluted and complicated cosmology of mine, I also think words — like time — are merely the costumes in which we wrap reality to try to make sense of it, to shape it into smaller-bite-sized, digestible chunks. Words, our words and vocabularies, are the garb, the regalia, the costumes in which we dress our belief systems, our frames of reference, and, as such, they are unique and individual and shaped by experience and environment and exposure to others, to the world, to realities not our own.

So, the NEXT thing: it is so incredibly important to give energy to the intention BEHIND BEYOND BENEATH the words. When I said, “If I ever commit murder it would be at Wegman’s” – I meant;

“I wish people were nicer, smiled, said hello and excuse me, moved when I said ‘excuse me’, acknowledged me, could be polite, and, too, wish this didn’t bother me so much, wish I wasn’t so first-world I shop here for chocolate croissants and roasted-chicken salad I think I need, and how did I turn out to be so poor, shopping in a store so over-priced and why don’t I just leave? How did I get sucked into this consumerism and who are these awful people and am I one of them? What’s wrong with me that I put up with this? What’s wrong with the world that we are all shopping here in this nirvana of consumerism when people are dying of starvation every day and we will throw out half of what we buy to eat? And don’t these people get that? And how pretentious am I in my own way thinking of judging them – I should be judging me – or evolve dammit to a place where I don’t judge and am just going. But if I had, would I be going here?”

These are the kinds of conversations I have with myself, every day, all day long. These are the kinds of conversations everyone has. Life is about examining, even when we think we are not doing so. We are making sense of it — or, we are trying to make sense of it.

We are trying to shape the vastness of All That Is into something we can live.

And, here’s the hard part. I have guilt about the Tweet. A person who claims to have my cosmology — incomprehensible as it may be — but founded in a belief in going, being, living in the Love and the Light, ought not to have Tweeted so cavalierly about an act I’d never even consider. It was, indeed, a joke, and a snarky dig at the Wegman’s shoppers, but, who am I to judge them? They were all busy with their own private existential conversations, post-holiday, pre-New Year rush and blues and let-down and build-up and who knows what else?

I’ll tell you what else, because in the days between Christmas and New Year, people I know experienced felony, death of a parent, departure of a mate, loss of a job, sick pet, sick child, bill due without adequate funds to pay it, upcoming loss of home, rejection by a “date”, on and on and on and on … and asked to describe any of those things, we would all use very different words and have very different feelings about them.

A word: Empathy. I lacked it when I used that other word.

So, then, here I am, going into 2016, feeling the pressure of First Blog Post of 2016 and First Book Read of 2016. Well, they’re out of the way now.

What? Oh, right. The book! I am, or so I say, a book blogger. Well, darlings, I also say I’m in my early forties. Words. Time. I keep telling you, costumes we use to try to define the undefinable.

DEAR MR. YOU, Mary-Louise Parker  Fantastic read. Don’t miss it. Also, don’t read it all at once. Ms. Parker writes thirty-four letters to men who have touched her life, influenced her personal cosmology, shaped her emotional language and reality. These are mostly gorgeous, often insightful, wonderfully funny, touching, terrifying, and so very generous in their honesty and sharing of her truth and experience. But, again, I read them one at a time. No more than one a day. Sometimes just one a week. Because they are personal letters, to be cherished, savored, and not, so much, lumped in a great mass because they then lose their impact and become just words. And as I’ve said, it is important to give energy to the intent and essence behind the words others use, to allow time and space for the meaning beyond symbols of symbols for symbols we call language to wash over you, to move you, to touch you.

Well, then, dear ones, I am off. Tomorrow is my first ever (and likely, last ever) colonoscopy (there’s a word and concept the meaning behind which I could do about ten thousand more words on) and I am mid-fast/cleanse and think it best I stop posting ANYTHING until this is over.

Love and light and happy to share this journey where we are here, going.