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