Reading: Not Everything Can Be A Musical (dammit)

Extraordinary Adventures, Daniel Wallace, Hardcover, 336pp, May 2017, St. Martin’s Press

I was hanging in my local indie, The Curious Iguana, a gift card SCREAMING at me from my wallet to buy something but there weren’t any books I was dying to have or had been alerted to by my vast Twitter network of word and book lovers. So  consulted my friendly bookseller and, voila! All I needed was to be told the writer of Big Fish had a new release, Extraordinary Adventures, and I was in.

Okay, true confessions (why do so many of my book write-ups involve confessions?): I never actually read Big Fish. And surely you don’t think me one of those cretins who believes movie content has much of anything to do with the book that inspired it. Ha! Of course not. It was the *MUSICAL version of Big Fish had its way with my heart, memory of which experience prompted me to buy this book.

The blurbs called it quirky and funny and hilarious and witty, and I suppose that’s a decision made by the marketing people, but wow, while I found much to admire in it and was touched by its humanity and tenderness, I did not find it funny.

I asked myself why?

And, alarmingly, the only answer with which I could come up was that, perhaps, maybe, it could be, oh dear, I’m too much like the main character, Edsel Bronfman. He is a reasonably intelligent man, reasonably capable, reasonably kind and good, who has allowed his life to live him rather than he living his life. He waited, he hoped, he wished, but he didn’t do much to make any of his hopes or wishes come to fruition. He did not — maybe — believe he was worthy of the lives he saw others living, the hopes fulfilled, and the wishes come true.

Edsel makes an effort to remedy these things through the course of the narrative (he’s MUCH younger than I am, so, good on him for trying to change) and interacts with a number of extraordinary women, discovers some of his mother’s secrets, develops a fondness for the drug dealer next door who robs his apartment and almost gets him killed, and trips, trudges, and travels through a series of — well, okay — quirky adventures leading up to a resolution — of sorts.

The novel sometimes feels as if it’s trying just a little too hard to be a Bill Murray vehicle. You know, one of those darkish meta-noirs posing as comedies directed by a pair of brothers, the kind a comedic actor signs up for in an effort to gain an auteur-hip patina and an Oscar nomination; the kind of film (definitely NOT a movie) the cognoscenti group-think agree to crow over despite the fact very few of them actually sat through the whole thing.

Which makes it sound as if I didn’t like this book, which is not the case. I didn’t not like it. I just, well, look, I’m having a rough life and I’m a hard sell on believing that your average schlub is going to stumble out of schmo-dom into a happy end.

After my tenth biopsy in four weeks, with insurance the congress is about to strip me of, in a country being run by a misogynist racist mentally unstable foreign plant, well, I’m just not buying it.

And there it is. And here I am, going.

*I saw the final performance of Big Fish: The Musical, to which I was taken as a gift by a dear, dear friend of mine. I had recently lost some people, my life was in what can politely be called chaos, one of the stars of the show — Bobby Steggert — is from Frederick, Maryland, where I live, and I had seen him in shows when he was a youngster, and, I am a sucker for almost every musical ever. Kate Baldwin played the love interest in the show, and during the course of it, as the leading character is dying, she sits downstage center, holds his head in her lap, and sings a song called I Don’t Need A Roof — listen:

During the course of this song I sobbed (you’d have to be an ice cube not to do so) with such vigor and volume not only did my dear friend on my right put his arm around me to comfort me, the stranger on my left grabbed my hand and comforted me as well, sobbing along. So, yeah, that kind of magic? I’m of course going to buy Extraordinary Adventures.

Reading: A Mystery, A Tragedy, and a Regency Romp

Ill Will, Dan Chaon, Hardcover, 480pp, March 2017, Ballantine Books

Multiple unreliable narrators, voiced through physical text purposely out of whack — words and punctuation missing, ends of sentences dropped off, odd spacing, pages divided into multiple columns of story — all meant, I think, to keep the reader off balance, uncomfortable, yanked from complacency, make Dan Chaon’s Ill WIll a book unlike most others, a Dadaist approach to literary fiction, experimental to the point of distraction.

The story is told as collage, time jumping and changing points of view. I was enjoying it for the first two hundred pages or so but around that halfway mark I came to suspect there was not going to be satisfactory resolution nor sufficient motivation for all the trickery; that I was never going to get complete backstories of the characters; and that what I was reading was something written as an exercise in effect, less a story about the characters than a story about the author’s prowess and daring.

That show-offy quality, the bleak and hopeless tone, and the unearned length wore me out. But this novel is MUCH LOVED by many literary critics and reviewers, so, don’t take my word for it. This is just my opinion.

The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy, Hardcover, 224pp, March 2017, Random House

Ariel Levy has been through the mill. Actually, she’s been milled, ground up, beaten into biscuit-dom, chewed, swallowed, egested, and still, somehow, managed to go on.

It is not a spoiler to say that during the course of this memoir she loses a child, a spouse, and a home. I think measuring tragedies against one another a fool’s occupation, but, I’m something of a fool, and I think the loss of a child is one of the most devastating sufferings one can endure — if, endure it one can. There is no coming back to who you were before your child was ripped from your reality; you are forever changed and forever measuring the loss, and, from my experience talking to those who’ve lost a child, forever numbed to  happiness and on guard against loss in a way you were not before the tragedy.

To lose your mate as well, to have to surrender one’s home, all on top of the loss of your child — how do you survive? Ariel Levy, I suspect, manages to continue living by putting words in order, one after another, in ways that make sense and have shape — logic and form and reason that are lacking in her real life, because, there is no way to make sense or find form in the loss of a child. No way.

So, she wrote this book. She manages to convey much of the horror but it is never done in a weepy-poor-me singing the blues sort of style. She is a successful reporter/profiler (she’s worked at both New York Magazine and The New Yorker) and she lays out the story — her story — in artful prose, swiftly, not dwelling on the ache and the pain, but, rather, illustrating it, conveying it in reasoned but moving prose. This is a very short and quick book, almost a long-form article, which I read in one sitting.

Any longer would likely have lost me because there is so much pain here. But, if Ariel Levy can write this well about her own life, I have been encouraged to start searching for her profiles and reportage on the lives of others.

Where The Dead Lie (Sebastian St. Cyr #12), C.S.Harris, Hardcover, 338pp, April 2017, Berkley Books

How did I miss the first eleven episodes in C.S.Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series? This is just my cup of tea — possibly laced with arsenic and served by a butler with a terrible secret who is probably blackmailing my guest, a not so nobleperson who is of questionable parentage.

A Regency London set mystery full of intriguing and complicated characters, artfully woven period details and history, and compelling, fast-paced storytelling written with style, grace, and wit.

In this installment, when an orphaned street urchin of London is murdered in a most brutal and disgusting way, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin is called in by a law enforcement type unwilling to sweep the death of a child under a rug, no matter how little the child mattered and how many would gladly dismiss the death of one more useless beggar. Devlin is determined to get to the bottom of it and discovers along the way that this urchin is not the first to have disappeared mysteriously and been used and abused in such a manner. In Devlin’s relentless pursuit of the truth and the killer, he is forced to interact with the darkest sides of London’s lowlife and discover their unsavory connections to the higher born who are part of Devlin’s own circle, and, perhaps, family.

Loved this. Great distraction from life. Horrifying subject but not done in a way that sickens one. Credit where credit due; it was because of the back cover blurb by one of my favorite writers, Deanna Raybourn, author of the Veronica Speedwell (among others) series, that motivated me to sign this book out of the library. Thank you to her. I am now struggling with going back to number one through eleven in the series — MY TO BE READ PILE IS ALREADY FILLING A ROOM!

So, off I go, to read another in my stacks.

Reading: Edan Lepucki’s “Woman No.17”

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki, Hardcover, 320pp, May 2017, Hogarth Press

I loved Edan Lepucki’s California, and when I wrote about it I spoke of how much I looked forward to this fascinating writer’s next novel with the fervent wish its setting not be dystopian. Ha! Little did I know by the time Edan Lepucki published again we would be hurtling toward a non-fictional dystopia brought about by a treasonous, narcissistic, sociopathic, dementia-riddled, pathological liar who stole an election with the help of Russia.

But, here we are. And without babbling on at too great a length in sociological theorizing, I think we arrived at this seventh circle because we live in fear that who we are is not enough, not who we ought to be, and because of that fear we have become performance artists, pretending to be some idealized “I”  — or, at least, a version of that “I” we wear like armor, a disguise we hope will allow us to survive, to meet with the approval of the culture in which we live. And, the effort to maintain the facade of projected-self is so all-consuming, we often dissolve into despair and desperate behavior, having lost the line between truth and our invented-self, an exhaustion of being which leaves us vulnerable to the manipulations of others to whom we look as mirrors, to find ourselves in how they perceive us.

Oscar Wilde said it best; “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki has created a riveting and revealing portrait of the ways in which masks, personas, disguises, and the distancing effect of communication via social media affect modern life and personal reality.

The story is told by two alternating first person narrators; Lady, whose birth name was Pearl, and Esther, who is now called S. That the Lady sections are titled Lady, and the S sections titled Esther, indicates which of the two is more in touch with the anima beneath the persona, but both characters are remarkably aware of their own delusions — which in my opinion is where Edan Lepucki’s astounding ability to create real humans with whom one identifies and sympathizes, flaws and all, shines — because while Lady and S are both at turning points of identity confusion in their lives and behave in ways some reviewers and readers have described as repugnant, I found them to be like me, like everyone I’ve ever known, acting and behaving in the ways they do because they are compelled by the desire to find and be the “I” behind the masks, questioning the rules and expectations of cultural forces: social norms, parents, friends, and the roles we are expected to play based on gender, age, income, race, and class.

Lady, having recently decided to take a break from her marriage to Karl, hires S from a Craigslist ad to nanny for her toddler son, Devin. Too, Seth, Lady’s eighteen year old son from her first marriage to the long disappeared Marco, lives with her; while he has no diagnosed disability, Seth has spoken only one word in his lifetime and communicates via sign language, gestures, iPad, and phone texts. Both Lady and S had difficult mothers, and while Lady chose to deal with hers by disconnecting and cutting her out of her life, S’s reason for pursuing the nanny position has to do with her having decided to do a performance/art project and become her mother, who, early in her life, worked as a nanny; a project meant both to reveal to S who her mother was and who she, herself is. While S is plundering her mother’s past, Lady has pillaged Seth’s silence for an article she wrote which led to a contract for a book about his life. As the two pursue their goals, their lives and lies and loves become intertwined in a complex chiaroscuro portrait of parent and child relationships, the isolation of the self, and the ways in which we are so busy defining our own identities and healing our own wounds, we may well miss the ways in which we affect — or damage — others.

We don’t mean to disappoint, but life is never what we think it will be. Lady, remembering a long ago night when she thought things were turning around for her, that she was on the path to a happy end, says this:

     It hurts because nothing turned out the way I thought it would. You think you know how a story begins, or how it’s going to turn out, especially when it’s your own. You don’t.

There, there. So there.

Exactly. There is an economy of prose there with a near poetic rhythm, with that final paragraph, its four words sculpted into a metrical structure approximating a heartbeat, absolutely perfect; somehow both precise and ambiguous, like life, like the story, like the behavior of all the characters, like being human.

There are so many gorgeous, lyrical moments in Edan Lepucki’s work, I hesitate to begin quoting. But, in addition, Edan Lepucki also excels at dry wit and humor, with piquant observations of a world gone mad, populated by people trying to love and/or struggling to understand why they have not been better loved. I’m going on too long and I apologize. One more quote — this is the opening of the novel, by the end of which paragraph I was totally hooked, in love with the words, with the style. Listen:

It was summer. The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt. The freeways shimmered, any hotter and they might crack, might explode, and the poor cars would confetti into the air. People were complaining, they were moving slowly. They were swarming the beaches like tiny bugs upon the backs of dead animals. I preferred to stay home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer. The air conditioner was broken. I had taken to sitting in the living room with the curtains drawn, my body edged with sweat like frosting on a cake, daring to see how hot it could get. I ate salad for dinner every night and had almost checked myself and the boys into a hotel. I’d refrained because of the babysitter search. What would applicants think if I requested they meet me poolside at the Roosevelt?

How beautiful and evocative is that? The highest compliment I can pay any author is that their work reminds me of Joan Didion and her trenchant, dissecting, laser-sharp prose; each word a perfect complement to the whole. Every word of that paragraph reveals something about its speaker, Lady, and after just those few sentences we know her, we’ve a feel of who she is; we’ve met her just as surely as if we’d been in a room with her.

This is the brilliance of Edan Lepucki and the beauty of a story which explores the meaning of family, art, truth, and the cost of our delusions and denials and desires.

Read it. Five stars. And, like I said after California, I can’t wait until her next novel. This time, though, I have no requests. I place myself wholly in Edan Lepucki’s hands, knowing that whatever she gives us will be a worthwhile and wonderful gift. She is one of my instant-always reads, and I bet she’ll be one of yours, too.

 

Reading: Genre Love – A Good Read is a Good Read is a Good Read

In this blog post I discuss One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline and My (Not So) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

When it comes to books, some people find genre a dirty or disparaging word. I confess, I once disdained fiction not labeled literary. Then, after having worked seriously and for years on what I thought was a piece of literary fiction, I became discouraged, stopped trying to waken my inner Didion, and went into a writing-funk, during which a dear one suggested since I was such a raconteur (by which she meant, I never shut up with my inventing of back-stories about people we knew) I should try my hand at mystery cozies or romance novels. I thought, “Hmm, how cinchy. YES!” And, like your typical ignorant-of-the-skills-required fool, I read a couple of crime/mystery thrillers, British mystery cozies, Regency romance novels, and so-called chick-lit, and I was gobsmacked.

And addicted. And knew, right away, those writers who mastered genres had a gift I did not and would not ever possess.

There is so much wonderful, inventive, entertaining writing by an overabundance of skillful artists of the word out there, one never need want for a good read. What I have found especially comforting is that each time I discover a “new” (to me) genre expert I can rely on their having a backlist to which I can look forward when I need a reliable pleasure. When a Twitter friend introduced me to M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series and then sent me all of them currently in print, I was thrilled to have in reserve those many episodes. Too, there is the Louise Penny Inspector Gamache series, the writing in which rivals anything labeled literary fiction. I’m also a fan of John Sandford. And Harlan Coben. And the GLORIOUS Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal. And Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell glories. And Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane Regency romance series. And Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness delights. And …I think you get the picture.

So, I am always delighted when someone I trust suggests a new genre writer I ought to sample. Thus it was that I was led to Lisa Scottoline, who, it turns out, is not only a powerfully talented and prolific writer of mystery/crime thrillers, but, too, an inordinately friendly and gracious Twitter pal. Thus, I was eager to get my hands on:

One Perfect Lie, Lisa Scottoline, Hardcover, 384pp, April 2017, St. Martin’s Press

Chris Brennan — who is not, in fact, Chris Brennan — is the new government teacher and assistant coach at a high school where we know, early on, he is targeting three teen boys — Raz, Justin, and Evan — for some scheme he’s been sent there to accomplish. The three boys, troubled and struggling in their own ways, come from very different circumstances, each with a loving mother suffering her own complications and growing pains. All of these well-developed and sympathetic characters and their individual threads weave into the breakneck paced plot, coalescing in a breath-taking climax for another grand slam Lisa Scottoline thrill-ride.

This is my fourth Lisa Scottoline read, and it is great to know I’ve something like twenty-five more (so far) waiting for me.

My (Not So) Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella, Hardcover, 448pp, February 2017, The Dial Press

This is the first book of Sophie Kinsella’s I have read and I was lured by the cover design and jacket copy, particularly this: “…this sharply observed novel is a witty critique of the false judgment we make in a social-media-obsessed world.” Other than what I consider to be a misspelling of judgement (when did they delete the e after the g? NO!) that pretty much sold me as I am lately all too aware of my own false judgements and media-obsession.

Plot synopsis: youth leaves small town for big city dream; big city dream not so dreamy with some big bad monsters; youth returns to roots; youth discovers lots of things about roots and monsters; love blossoms; happy ending.

I read it in one sitting. The writing is smooth, occasionally deliciously funny, and moves with buoyant pacing and graceful alacrity. I had a great good time reading it, finding comfort in knowing what to expect and being provided it with neat mastery.

So, a weekend day of genre reading — and label as you will, the only genre that really matters is a good read, and both of these were.

Reading: Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk

lillian-boxfish

Click on pic to be taken to the page for Lillian Boxfish at St. Martin’s Press

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, Hardcover, 287pp, January 2017, St. Martin’s Press

Let me begin by saying this is my first 5-star read of the year and I know there is no way I can possibly do it justice. You must read it. My library copy, here beside me, is thick with sticky-arrows where I wanted to write in the margins or underline one of the many beautiful sentences and passages, thus, I am saving my pennies to buy my own copy so I can return to and revel in it again and again, as I do with the works of Helene Hanff, Dorothy Parker, and the correspondence of William Maxwell with both Eudora Welty and Sylvia Townsend Warner. I loved it — no, LOVE it, present tense.

Of course, I would. These are some of the other things in life I most love: books and great writing, New York City — especially historical New York City, people who are erudite, witty, literate, well-bred, empathetic, kind but not cloying, strong of spine and conscientious of character, who recognize and own their strengths and flaws in equal measure, going about their lives without indulging in whiny, navel-gazing excuse-making.

Lillian would have none of that. Here is the synopsis of the novel found on Kathleen Rooney’s website [click here to go there]:

It’s the last day of 1984, and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish is about to take a walk.

As she traverses a grittier Manhattan, a city anxious after an attack by a still-at-large subway vigilante, she encounters bartenders, bodega clerks, chauffeurs, security guards, bohemians, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be—in surprising moments of generosity and grace. While she strolls, Lillian recalls a long and eventful life that included a brief reign as the highest-paid advertising woman in America—a career cut short by marriage, motherhood, divorce, and a breakdown.

A love letter to city life—however shiny or sleazy—Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney paints a portrait of a remarkable woman across the canvas of a changing America: from the Jazz Age to the onset of the AIDS epidemic; the Great Depression to the birth of hip-hop.

In this post 11/9 tragic election world gone mad and cruel and hateful, what a joy to find relief and solace in a well-written, spellbinding novel.

While Lillian’s walk is a journey through the city she loves, it is even more an exploration of the time she has spent on earth as she approaches her life’s end. The tarriances during her odyssey — walk and life — range from touching to tragic, and are always fascinating, insightful, and revealing, and often quite funny. Her descriptions of landmarks in the city are viscerally evocative, transporting the reader through time and space in a way nearly magical. Her language resonates with the patois of a smarter, more sophisticated reality where wit, savvy, good breeding, and  literacy were valued, a world in which one was not only allowed to aim higher than the lowest common denominator, but expected to want to do so, to aspire to learnedness and enlightenment. Lillian’s outlook and world are blessed antidote to the deplorable and disastrous embrace in this country of ignorance and pig-headed refusal to evolve being paraded as traditional values and patriotism; Lillian would not tolerate such fatuous asininity, and neither shall I.

There are so many gorgeous passages in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, I am loath to quote one because it will require I make a Sophie’s Choice among so many glorious sentences; too, it will deny you the pleasure of first discovery. Still, I feel I must give you an inkling of the treasures that await you, so, here, near book’s end when Lillian has been asked to appear on a panel about the history and future of advertising.

“I’m afraid I’ve arrived unprepared to defend my approach to writing ads,” I said, “never mind the very concept of professional responsibility, or the practice of simply treating people with respect. Therefore I’m compelled to defer to the au courant experience of my two successors. Please, ladies, resume the accounts of your efforts to unwind the supposed advances of civilization and return us consumers to a state of pliable savagery. Who knows, perhaps some young lady who watches this program will take up where you leave off and find a way to ease us all back into the trees with the orangutans, who I gather are deft hands at the fruit market. With luck and hard work, perhaps we’ll even recover our old gills and quit terrestrial life entirely. Back to the sea! That Florida swampland Mother bought may prove to be a good investment after all. In any event, I wish you both luck in your quest. I will not be keeping track of your progress, however. My interests, such as they are, lie elsewhere. To be clear, it’s not that I no longer want to work in the world that you’re describing. It’s that I no longer want to live in the world you’re describing.”

That paragraph alone pretty much sums up my feelings about the world today. And it is not the only time in Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk when Lillian speaks for me; or, speaks as I wish I could have or had spoken. I have, I think, not aged as well as I might, but, too, not as badly as some people of my acquaintance seem to think. So, if you will indulge me, one more Lillian quote (as translated by the extraordinarily gifted Ms. Rooney):

I think I look all right. But who’s to say? The insouciance of youth doesn’t stay, but shades into “eccentricity,” as people say when they are trying to be kind, until finally you become just another lonely crackpot. But I’ve always been this way.The strangeness just used to seem more fashionable, probably.”

Exactly. The thing I found so very special and marvelous about this book is that Lillian’s mordant and perceptive observations about life, time, culture, relationships, and herself describe better than anything I’ve ever read that space in the soul and mind and consciousness in which each of us lives, that private haven, the solitude of self where we must balance what and who we think we are with the perceptions of others about what and who they think we are, and, too, find a way to fit the largeness of all the possibilities and dreams of our secret, private, unseen souls into the world in which we’ve been thrust, the circumstances we’ve been given, the limitations we face. I don’t know about you, but for me, that has been life’s journey; questioning if what I am seeing and thinking and feeling is “true” when, so often, the rest of the world doesn’t quite see it that way, doesn’t quite get it, doesn’t quite get me.

I got Lillian Boxfish. And, I like to think, she’d get me. And, trust me, you want to know her. Buy this book. Don’t borrow it or library it: BUY IT. You will want to mark pages and make notes and return to it again and again when you are feeling in need of a wise and dear friend.

For more on this novel and author, click HERE to check out Bethanne Patrick’s conversation with Kathleen Rooney at Literary Hub.

 

 

Reading: My (Part-Time) Paris Life by Lisa Anselmo

my-part-time-paris-lifeMy (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home, by Lisa Anselmo, hardcover, 256pp, Thomas Dunne Books, October 2016

I saw this book on display at the library while I was perusing the new releases. Now, here’s the thing; I was there to pick up three books I had on hold, three books which have worked their way up on my have to read and to be read lists, the contents of which I get to in between tackling the piles of books I already own and need to read. All of which is to say, the last thing I need is to check-out or buy a book on a whim. I’ve really been trying to exercise self-control, limit myself to five checked-out library books at a time, no more than five on my library hold/wait list, and purchase only those books by authors with whom I interact on Twitter or whose work I know I have to own — members of which club I will never reveal to anyone but Duchess Goldblatt and my local booksellers at The Curious Iguana.

But, Lisa Anselmo’s memoir called out to me. First, I’ve a lot of experience at running away. Second, I have always wanted to do the ex-pat thing and will likely never be able to — I’ve a near dead passport I probably shouldn’t spend the money to renew as I have never once used it and likely never will; so reading about those who have followed their travel, change-my-life dreams assuages my inner-aching a bit. And third, it’s about a complicated relationship between a mother and child, and losing that mother, which is a life-event I dread and for which I am (foolishly, I know) trying to prepare myself.

So, I checked it out. I’m awfully glad I did. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher’s site:

Lisa Anselmo wrapped her entire life around her mother, a strong woman who was a defining force in Lisa’s life—maybe too defining. When her mother dies from breast cancer, Lisa realizes she hadn’t built a life of her own and struggles to find her purpose. Who is she without her mother—and her mother’s expectations?

Desperate for answers, she turns to her favorite city—Paris—and impulsively buys a small apartment, refusing to play it safe for the first time. What starts out as an act of survival sets Lisa on a course that reshapes her life in ways she never could have imagined. Suddenly, she’s living like a local in a city she thought she knew, but her high school French, while fine for buying bread at the corner boulangerie, goes only so far when Paris gives her a strong dose of real life. From dating to homeownership in a foreign country, Lisa quickly learns it’s not all picnics on the Seine, and starts to doubt herself—and her love of the city. But she came to Paris to be happy, and she can’t give up now. Isn’t happiness worth fighting for?

In the vein of Eat, Pray, Love and Wild, My (Part-time) Paris Life a story is for anyone who’s ever felt lost or hopeless, but still dreams of something more. This candid memoir explores one woman’s search for peace and meaning, and how the ups and downs of expat life in Paris taught her to let go of fear, find self-worth, and create real, lasting happiness in the City of Light.

This was a quick read, written as if a friend was sharing her life history over a few bottles of wine and a long, leisurely dinner. And there are plenty of bottles and dinners in this memoir. I loved the descriptions of Paris and her time there. That’s one part of the journey, but, too, there is a great deal of introspection and self-examination about her emotional journey. It might be difficult for some people to relate to someone who can afford to have residences in both New York City and Paris, neither of which are cheap, neither of which would ever be affordable for most people, let alone both, but reading about privileged lives doesn’t bother me. I enjoy it.

What everyone can relate to is having a parent and finding one’s own way and own voice. Growing into yourself and embracing your strengths, believing you can do and be what you’ve dreamed is a struggle for most people, and when you’ve had a less than affirming and encouraging parenting — even if approval was withheld out of the best intentions  — the journey becomes even harder, and much longer than the distance between New York and Paris, and so noisy with the voices in the head whispering (or shouting) “You’re not enough!”

I argue with those voices all the time. We all do, I am betting. So, Lisa Anselmo’s memoir is a comfort with the many moments of, “Yes, I feel that way, too!” And to have that identification and recognition of a shared experience come in the shape of a witty, warm, well-written travel and dream journal is very much a good thing.

A fast read with a happy ending, and, better, knowing we can still get out of this country and go somewhere else — right now, just what I needed. I guess I better had renew that passport, if they’ll let me, since the administration of that election-stealing, russian conspiring asshat just erased the government’s apology for past discrimination against the LGBTQ community. No doubt those gop-bigots-misogynist-homophobes are already planning on sewing the pink triangles on me and mine and gassing us.

 

 

Reading: A Perilous Undertaking: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery

perilous-undertakingA Perilous Undertaking: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery by Deanna Raybourn, 352pp, hardcover, Berkley Books/Penguin Random House, January, 2017

First of all, I really enjoyed this book, the second in a series, and I liked this one even more than the first,  A Curious Beginning, which I liked a lot.

Deanna Raybourn is a gifted stylist, an accomplished writer whose erudite prose flows  with seemingly effortless glisten, glitters with sly and subtle wit, all the while propelling clever and fast-paced plots which are full of surprises and period detail both fascinating and informative.

Veronica Speedwell, Butterfly Hunter, is an irresistible character, independent of spirit, steely of spine, with an intense appetite for life, and she does not suffer fools. Her cohort, Stoker, tattooed, eye-patched, long-haired, hot-bodied historian, is equally intriguing. Both have mysterious (though, eventually, revealed, at least to each other) heritage and stubbornly intense opinions and ethical-behavioral codes which sometimes conflict and clash, but just as often coalesce, all of which serve to confound each other and the reader — or, at least, this reader, who wants nothing more than for the two of them to finally strip naked and make Victorian whoopee.

Here is the publisher’s synopsis:

London, 1887. Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an invitation to visit the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women. There she meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Accused of the brutal murder of his artist mistress Artemisia, Ramsforth will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if Veronica cannot find the real killer.

But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of the many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed….

Like I said, I enjoyed this book immensely, but not just because of all those reasons I’ve cited. It also struck a very personal note with me. Let me try to explain as succinctly as I can.

Other than reading, one of the things I do to maintain my sanity — and I will not, here, be drawn into a debate about the success of those efforts — is to collect on Pinterest and Tumblr photos and documentation documenting and celebrating the presence of LGBTQ people throughout history.

We have always been here, we’ve just been rendered mostly invisible or, when seen, portrayed as other, perverted, criminal, outside the norm by a culture ruled in large part by a white-male-hetero-normative christian partriarchy, near fascist in its insistence on what constituted normal, what was allowed and approved.

In my youth, the prevalence and repetition from media, my church, and my community and family of the message that being not quite male enough — which later transferred into being gay — made me other and was, somehow, wrong and rare and outside the norm, distorted the way in which I saw myself, the way in which I approached life. I have always thought of myself as less than, an outlier, in danger because of who I am and how I behaved and loved; and even now (hell, especially now since November 8) I must be on guard every day, every moment, and work to remind myself I am enough.

I wish that in my youth I had had examples in media, in life, in the thousands of books I read, of queer people who were not criminal or mentally ill or villains. I wish I’d had access to a literature in which queer people were just queer people, living their lives, a part of the world not hidden or other.

We existed. Throughout history. Throughout time. And, too, so did strong, independent women with healthy appetites for life and sex and adventure. Women who made their way being strong, being themselves, and were not burnt as witches or tarred and feathered.

Deanna Raybourn has written just such a woman. And, not only that, she’s given her (and Stoker) live and let live, enlightened attitudes about queer love. In a Victorian setting. And reading it today gave me hope. Reading it today reminded me the world has always had people in it of expansive mind and attitude. Reading it today made me appreciate even more Deanna Raybourn’s gifts as writer (and human being) because she sees and writes Light. She sees and writes and makes visible the hearts and characters who have not been seen and written nearly as much as they ought to have been throughout history.

Deanna Raybourn manages to write power in a way not polemical or preachy, but simply truthful and robustly human and real. I wish I had had this to read when I was younger, and I am ecstatic that it exists now.

(I was not sent a pre-publication copy of this book; I got it for myself. While I follow Deanna Raybourn on Twitter, and she follows me, we have never met and rarely interact, in fact, often when I comment she does not reply — nor should she, that’s not a criticism, merely me letting you, the reader, know I am not a shill, just a fan of a gifted writer. Thanks for reading.)

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: Finding Patrick Ryan

Over the holiday weekend I read three books, 2 of which I will describe in brief at the end of this:  SCREAM, by Tama Janowitz; and PALE FIRE, by Vladimir Nabokov, and then, one of those books that fill a reader with joy, the pages of which introduce you to a new author to whom you can turn when you need to say, “AHHH, this is what writing is and reading should be!” I start with this:

THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS, by Patrick Ryan, hardcover, 272 pages, Dial Press

dream-life

Click on cover to visit Patrick Ryan’s website

Behold the first thirty-four words of The Way She Handles, the opening story in Patrick Ryan’s collection, The Dream Life Of Astronauts:

“Late one night during the summer of Watergate, I was in bed reading a Hardy Boys novel by flashlight when a car pulled into our cul-de-sac, its headlights sweeping the walls of my room.”

That sentence tells the reader at least ten things about the narrator and one thing about the writer; he’s incredibly gifted. I was so enraptured by the promise of the opening line, I hesitated to read on, fearing disappointment. Instead, I found a new favorite author.

I suppose I ought to have expected as much since the book was blurbed by Ann Patchett, no slouch in the writing department herself. And I then discovered a chat between the two on her Parnassus Books site. Click here for that. 

The Way She Handles is about four lonely people, isolated together, which is less oxymoron than miracle of writing, managing to capture the damage people do to one another just by virtue of proximity. Like many of the stories in the collection, members of these fractured, fragile families Mr. Ryan so vividly captures, resent one another, often for an absence — whether it be physical, there is much abandonment herein, or emotional, in that those others we love seem never to appreciate enough how we love them, what we do for them, what we’ve sacrificed for them.

The title story, The Dream Life Of Astronauts, is one of the finest, most moving, layered stories I’ve read since Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck collection. In it, space-nerd Frankie, who is sixteen, almost seventeen, is awe-struck by an almost astronaut he thinks he is stalking; but who is pursuing whom and what they both gain and lose in their misapprehensions about one another make for a tale both hilarious and horrifying. When we meet Frankie again, much later in the collection in a treasure called Earth, Mostly, well, I wept.

Part of the genius of this collection is that while each story stands alone, they all take place near Cape Canaveral and some of the characters reappear, having changed (rarely for the better) in the way people do when you’ve known them for long years but haven’t seen them for ages; upon recognizing them and realizing who they were and what they’ve come to you gasp the “Oh, shit, that could be me,” sort of panic.

Like Bonnie Jo Campbell in her glorious collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters [click here], Mr. Ryan imbues his characters with a native wisdom and a real-life, real-people, day-in-day-out acceptance of their lives and realities. They may have tragedy, they may have regret, but they go on, they trudge, they cope through the terror of life in lower-middle-class America, where all the dreams and possibilities politicians are always blathering on about are pretty much acknowledged to be the things that happen to people not like us; happiness is a thing mostly out of reach.

I loved this book. I cannot recommend it enough. Which was a nice feeling after the two books I read right before it.

SCREAM: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction, by Tama Janowitz, hardcover, 304 pages, Dey Street Books

This was a terribly depressing memoir to which I was led because a few people I know on Twitter were talking about it. But, yuck. I quote;

“I found rotten people to be more interesting. What made them the way they were? Thankfully, I found that even nice and decent human beings are pretty rotten as well.”

One can imagine the sort of unhappiness and bleak existence experienced by someone with that cosmology. I feel sorry for her. I’m sorry I read this. And, not only was it unpleasant, but it was poorly edited with many repeated lines and fragments of semi-stories and bitternesses. Just — no.

And then, in my never-ending quest to prove autodidacticism is a viable alternative to a degree, I decided I just had to read what was recently called in print “Vladimir Nabokov’s genius gay classic”;

PALE FIRE, by Vladimir Nabokov, Hardcover, 239 pages, Everyman’s Library, 1992

Clearly, my lack of formal education has rendered me unable to appreciate what others (many, many others) have called an ingenious masterpiece of form and structure. Well, okay. But, let me tell you an embarrassing little tale about my writing. Once upon a time I wrote a weekly column and theatre reviews for a small on-line magazine. Its publisher invited a former New York Times editor to workshop with us and he said to me; “Do me and all your readers a favor, confine your masturbatory urges to your private time. If you’re working that hard to prove to us how smart you are, we’re never gonna believe you anyway. Dial it back.”

Of course I got furious. Of course he was right. Now, I am NOT comparing myself to Nabokov, but it strikes me that Pale Fire wasn’t written for — as Dorothy Parker called us — The Common Reader, but rather, for other writers and graduate students enthralled by the technical aspects of literature and rubbing-one-another off about how clever and intellectual they all are.

Listen, I’m not much interested in flipping back and forth and deep-deep delving into a book to appreciate its genius. Truth: I’d rather jack off myself.

Later kids, Love and Light.

 

 

 

Reading: The Swans of Fifth Avenue

Swans of Fifth AvenueThe Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin, Hardcover, 368 pages, January 2016, Delacorte Press

I’ve always had a weakness for celebrity gossip. While I claim the mantle of politically-correct (more below) socialist-libertarian-egalitarian, count myself among those who believe capitalism has run amok, a behemoth become evil empire overseen and heavily-hand-ruled by a small cabal of venal, heterosexual white men who are determined to enslave the rest of us and lay waste to equality and democracy, much of my righteous indignation comes from the truth that I am poor, will always be poor, and have never had a path to gain foothold among the haves and one-percenters. There is little doubt I would gladly have compromised my morality for a Fifth Avenue apartment with a view and the opportunity to hobnob with the upper echelons of society, to rub elbows (and anything else to which they’d give me access) with the beautiful people.

It’s that aspirational acquisitiveness that makes novels like The Swans of Fifth Avenue so seductive. Reading this novel’s pre-publication publicity, I’d hoped for a juicy roman a clef in the Dominick Dunne tradition; his Vanity Fair columns (most of Vanity Fair, come to think of it) and novels like The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, A Season In Purgatory, An Inconvenient Woman, People Like Us, were thinly veiled exposes of people we commoners — the hoi polloi — had always envied but could, thanks to Mr. Dunne’s admittance and spy-work, now also pity and pooh-pooh and sanctimoniously tsk-tsk, patting ourselves on the back that we did not indulge in such malignity, malice, and evil even as we wished with all our avaricious little hearts that we could have those Porthault linens and hot, available, sexy chauffeurs and lawnboys.

Well, I’d still sell out for a Fifth Avenue view, high-thread-count sheets, and available and willing hunky, horny servant types — you can’t get much commoner than am I — and so I thought I’d have more fun reading The Swans of Fifth Avenue than I did. And damn damn damn this evolution of self, since I didn’t, I have to figure out why.

For those of you who read “reviews” for synopses, here’s what the publisher says:

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The author of The Aviator’s Wife returns with a triumphant new novel about New York’s “Swans” of the 1950s—and the scandalous, headline-making, and enthralling friendship between literary legend Truman Capote and peerless socialite Babe Paley.