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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then again, perhaps it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading: Fire(blazing) and Light(reads)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reading: 3 Thrillers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authorial Styles and Skill: 4 Stars

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

Content: 3 Stars

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

Packaging: 3 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missed opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

Here I am, dear ones, going.

 

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: 10 Days, 4 Novels, And A Depression Memoir

In this post I’ll be talking about DIFFERENT CLASS by Joanne Harris, HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund, PERFECT LITTLE WORLD by Kevin Wilson, INFINITE HOME by Kathleen Alcott, and THIS CLOSE TO HAPPY:A RECKONING WITH DEPRESSION by Daphne Merkin.

different-classDifferent Class, by Joanne Harris, hardcover, 416pp, Touchstone, April 2016

It’s an unenviable burden to be the book I read immediately after I’ve just finished a five-star-can-I-marry-a-novel-legally sort of experience; the kind of falling in love I did with Cara Hoffman’s Running. [You can read about it HERE.] So, to be fair to the writer, I try to go in an entirely different direction, most often heading into genre-land — though I am not so much a fan of categorizing writing — and I turn to writers who have successfully created worlds and milieus they revisit and further develop in series. Thus, having read an essay in which Joanne Harris was compared to Patricia Highsmith, I thought it high time (Oh dear, I didn’t mean to do that.) I sample her work. Too, I’ve a weakness for books about British schools and what goes on there, which, in concert with my fondness for murder/scandal procedurals made Different Class seem the ideal choice. And although it took me a while to adjust to its rhythms — which I attribute to detoxing from the genius of Running — I was Continue reading