READING: So Little Time, and Less Patience

P.S. TO BEGIN — I started this post more than two weeks ago and have had difficulty motivating myself to finish, or, even, to middle. The world is in such a disastrous, hateful muddle at the moment that doing ANYTHING other than trying to right all the wrongs being committed seems frivolous. But, we must not let the bastards win by losing all of our joy while resisting. So, I’m finishing this damn thing. And now — to the ORIGINAL intro —

I’m not reading less, but I am remembering and writing about reading less, which I’m going to spend a few hundred words explaining. Feel free to skip right down the page to the red headlines which mark the start of my book talk.

There are quite a few books from April and May about which I have not written. About which — some of them — I’m not going to write. Here’s why.

Twice in recent weeks I have lost my phone. Not seriously, just two of those brief, five-minute or so episodes which each seemed an eternity. Once, I’d misplaced it, or, rather,  left it on the seat in the car, and another time it had fallen out of my pocket down beside a chair cushion.

More disturbing than the loss was my reaction; my immediate response to both losses was to think, “I need to call D—— [my sister], and get her to call my phone so I can find it. Of course, I didn’t have my phone so I couldn’t use my phone to find my phone, at which point I seriously contemplated the benefits of getting a back-up burner phone in case my primary phone was lost.

Seriously. Seriously?

After which over-reaction akin to the time years ago when I panicked because I didn’t have two bottles of wine in the house for the evening and realized I might have a problem, I determined it was time for some serious self-inventorying and examination of how I was spending my time and on what I was spending my energy and attention.

Aside from the clear indication I am reading too many thriller/mystery novels in which burner phones play a role, here’s what I came up with: My memory is not what it was. I misplace keys, walk out of a room to get something and forget what it was by the time I get where I thought I was going, names and words are just out of reach, lost in the maze of all the roiling memories and worries occupying brain-space, and fewer and fewer books are bringing me the joy most books once brought. I have been abandoning more and more books at the 50 page mark, too, finding the characters all seem alike, difficult to keep track of, the stories less interesting, rarely fresh, the voices too MFA-ed into alike-ness, and the writing and structure all too formulaic, calculated, and lacking emotional heft.

And, even with those I finish, as it is with my phone and keys and people’s names, I find that in a few days I can’t remember them. For example, someone was talking to me about a book which sounded just wonderful, and when I went to look it up, there it was on my Goodreads list; I’d read it three weeks before and didn’t remember a thing about it.

So, here I am, going to write about only those books that imprint enough on me to last at least until I get around to blogging. Not in this to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I won’t be listing those books I don’t finish or which don’t do much for me. One very good reason: taste in literature is so dependent on life-experience and mood and current circumstance, some very good books don’t move me, and some books others might find a complete waste of time, keep me good company. So, I’m sharing the ones I most appreciate, and allowing that those I don’t are not necessarily “bad books” — but, rather, like most of the men in the world, I’m just not a match for them.

So, on with the book talk. IF YOU’RE SKIPPING THE PREAMBLE, THE BOOK DISCUSSIONS BEGIN HERE!

Speak No Evil, Uzodinma Iweala, Hardcover, 215pp, March 2018, Harper

If you have reached your quota of LGBTQ coming out tales and tragic endings at the hand of a bigoted, homophobic, racist culture…TOUGH. Read Speak No Evil anyway because its voice (Well, voices, more later on that.) speaks from a heart/soul-truth while describing a journey and experience all too familiar in impact if not specifics for too, too, too many queer and black people.

Niru is the son of Nigerian parents who hold extreme religious beliefs. His privileged life in Washington, D.C. is interrupted after he finds the courage to come out to his best friend, Meredith, when she initiates sexual moves. Soon after, Meredith installs Grindr on Niru’s phone, but when his father discovers sexually explicit messages on Niru’s phone he explodes his life, forcing him to return to Nigeria — a country where homosexuality is against the law and punishable by fourteen years in prison or death by stoning — for a religion-based cure.

Niru is torn between the truth of who he is and the propaganda with which he’s been brainwashed, as well as his desire to please the parents he loves and live up to the example set by his much praised and adored older brother. Even his excelling at track and early admission acceptance to Harvard is not enough, he knows, to protect him from his parents’ and the world’s homophobia, and the culture’s inherent racism.

Late in the book Niru’s narration ceases and Meredith takes over and what seemed at first another coming of age novel/Bildungsroman becomes a tragedy in a twist that seems not one-hundred-percent earned, or, rather, somehow out of place, as if we are now in a different book than that which we started.

Both would be worth reading, and the topics of homophobia and racism and privilege and religious terrorism are more than in need of literary/artistic illumination but as much as I liked this novel, it wasn’t quite. As in, it seems to be pieces of what might have been different, better novels, finally cobbled together in a way that doesn’t do any of its threads the justice they deserve.

Still, read it. Because it matters.

Some Hell, Patrick Nathan, Paperback, 288pp, February 2018, Graywolf Press

Okay, I hear you, another LGBTQ coming of age novel? Yep. Listen, for centuries we’ve had to — for the most part, in America at least — read about the world from the perspective of the white heterosexual male, they who — for the most part — made up the canon, were embraced by the critics and academics, heralded as the touchstones and benchmarks of literary fiction. Well, Holden Caulfield did nothing for me. Updike and Roth, not interested. Jonathan Franzen, overrated and myopically self-involved. No. As a young queer, I suffered fear each time I heard the sneered put-downs of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams because they were that way; I knew I too was that way and was terrified someone would point it out. It wasn’t really spoken about openly by Capote and Williams, and they didn’t — for the most part — include it in their work, and they (and most of the other examples of that way I had then) were clearly miserable human beings, unhappy, addicted, outliers and freaks, but they were allowed to be homos at all only because they also owned artistic genius, which I, as a child (and now, as an adult) clearly did not, so my being that way was not going to be okay with anyone, anywhere as far as I could see or tell. My only option was to work on being a genius, and escape to New York or Hollywood where they seemed to be a club of outcasts to which I could — were I genius enough — belong.

Point being, there can’t be too many LGBTQ books as long as there are still places and people in the world who either live in the same kind of fear and loneliness I did, and/or are subjected to the bigotry of others who would have LGBTQ people return to those closeted, hunted, haunted times. You know, like 45 and his gop minions and moronic supporters?

Now, Some Hell is definitely NOT a feel-good book. Sex, suicide, dysfunctional, dissolving families, despairing survivors, and a search for self which leads to dark, dangerous misadventure and sorrow fill the pages. But the writing is searingly honest, etching difficult emotional truths on the heart and mind of the reader.

Colin’s father has killed himself, for which Colin feels responsible, and he is working his way through the notebook/journals his father kept in the office where he shot himself. Too, young Colin is in love with his best friend, who, after something sexual happens between them, distances himself. This passage:

When he passed Andy in the halls, love was the word for the hurt flowering inside him. Naming it made it grow, and to go with his hell he now had a heaven where he and Andy had not parted but admitted to one another what they had, what they could be, and despite his shame he refused not to reimagine that night, not to rewrite it how he wanted. It felt even more real than his hell as it burst all over his chest and dried sweetly in a handful of Kleenex.

That’s poetry made of tragedy and just one example of the intensely beautiful languaging in which Patrick Nathan tells this heartbreaking story. Why read something so difficult? Because, sadly, the impact and shape of the passions and spiritual perturbations in the story — if not the specific details — are part of what form many gay lives, many of all kinds of lives, perhaps yours, and to read it will give you the gift of knowing you are not alone.

I next read Noir, by Christopher Moore, and I’m not going to say a lot about it except that while it started off feeling clever and parodic, it ended up feeling like someone had taken one of those flashes of ideas for a glorious story which eventually show themselves to be not so flashy or glorious after all, and gone ahead and written the book anyway, letting it out into the world with a sort of “meh, it isn’t what I meant it to be but here it is.”

The Only Story, Julian Barnes, Hardcover, 253pp, April 2018, Knopf Publishing Group

The Only Story falls into the category of The Graduate, Summer of 42, the older woman – younger man stories, but is darker, elegiac but in a cynical, cold, near heartless way. This, when years after their first joining as accidental tennis partners and purposeful lovers, Paul visits Susan, now near her end:

…I think I am now probably done with guilt. But the rest of my life, such as it was, and subsequently would be, was calling me back. So I stood up and looked at Susan one last time; no tear came to my eye. On my way out I stopped at reception and asked where the nearest petrol station might be. The man was very helpful.

Sorry to be misandrist, but that’s the sort of thing men feel and write and do. And reading it — albeit it’s the last paragraph, so, took me long enough — made me realize just what it was about this novel I disliked. Older man/younger woman, not even worth much of a nod, let alone an entire novel, let alone a novel imbued with a feckless misanthropy and emotional ennui, Paul having learned little but how not to feel much, worried instead about running out of gas.

And, perhaps that is Mr. Barnes point, but a hellish nasty point and attitude it is. It isn’t as if he hasn’t warned us all the way through:

That’s one of the things about life. We’re all just looking for a place of safety. And if you don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time.

Let alone I take issue with the way the above is punctuated, I take more issue with the jadedness of it.

I’m finishing this post with

My Ex-Life, Stephen McCauley, Hardcover, 324pp, May 2018, Flatiron Books

Reading Stephen McCauley is like hanging out with that friend who not only has the best stories, but also tells them in the most fascinating, entertaining way, with a unique perspective, who, also, manages in the telling to articulate and illuminate things in that way that makes you say, “Yes! That’s exactly what I always felt but didn’t know how to say it!”

It is a fiction of recognition. And it is great fun. Well done. And you know from the start that the conclusion is going to be uplifting, as in, not one damn more tragic ending please.

In San Francisco, David has been deserted by his younger boyfriend for a bigger bank account and his rented home is about to be sold which will leave him homeless and loverless. His ex-life calls in the shape of Julia, his long-ago, brief wife, now mid-divorce, also in danger of losing her home and, one way or another, her daughter Mandy — yes, after the Barry Manilow song. She needs his help. He needs to get away. They come together in a new way, find closure for the old way, and they and those around them find new ways of defining family, friendship, loyalty, and trust.

It’s a great premise, and Stephen McCauley is a lovingly empathetic cultural critic who writes hilariously insightful dialogue. Now, I can hear some of you saying, “Pull a quote.” And, I would, but the humour and wit and insight are so woven into the context that to pull-quote it is reductive and does it a disservice. You know I never lie to you, so, trust me, this book is full of grins, giggles, a couple of guffaws, and genuine “gotchas” at the world’s foolishness, greed, cruelty, and — you get the picture. Now, get the book.

I smiled all the way through this book, and in this day and time, smiling for any reason is a huge bonus. Get this one. Hold it close. Let it give you a literary hug.

Then, GET BACK OUT THERE AND RESIST! Which is, where, here I am, going.

(Coming very soon, another post about Mariah Fredericks’ first in a series (to which I am much looking forward) novel, A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE; and Susan Elia MacNeal’s 6th in the Maggie Hope Mystery series (which I very much LOVE), THE QUEEN’S ACCOMPLICE; and Allison Pearson’s follow-up to I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT (which I never read) called HOW HARD CAN IT BE?, which was quite a balm. Stay tuned. Non-spoiler alert — all 3 were kickass good.

 

READING: New Year, A Resolution, and a fantastic new novel: The Immortalists

In this post I will be talking about The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt; The Sense Of An Ending, by Julian Barnes; and The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. And about backlog, used, and reprint versus shiny new publications.

The living/dining room shelves I share with my sister. Old treasures, photography books, our childhood books.

I own a lot of books. In addition to the books furnishing my current address (and the photos are not all of them) there are at least as many again living in a friend’s basement-online bookstore awaiting re-sale, and, before those were rescued, another amount at least that large was sold to used bookstores in bulk, donated to libraries and charities, and given away to friends during a number of moves in a very short number of years, and, too, hundreds left behind in a home from which I had quickly to get out, making what amounted to “what do I save in the fire” choices.

This is my desk where I write my blogs — sometimes. Reference books and inspiration and stacks of Twitterati-gifts and mementos, because I like feeling as if I’m working among the people I have met on Twitter, so many of them in the book business or, like me, in love with the book business.

I have, mostly, stopped spending money on books. This is not because I don’t love and adore books, but, rather, because in my life there is an ongoing declension of square footage and annual income. But, I’ve always been lucky and so am blessed to live in a town with a great library, and an even better independent bookstore, The Curious Iguana, to which my dearest of friends frequently give me gift certificates, so I’ve quite an account there. I am also often gifted with cards to a major bookseller chain, and, too, an online behemoth of a book merchant-monopoly. So, I jealously hoard those credits and use them only on authors who I consider “must haves” and books I fall in love with when reading and so want to have around me, with me, permanently part of my life.

Stacks beside the couch in my room, where I sit in the morning — of late, 3 or 4a.m. having become my morning — doing my morning journaling and drinking coffee, or tea, or water.

In order to make room for more, I decided I would need to set free a commensurate amount of the already-owned. Many of those books in these pictures are in the “to be read” category and so for 2018 I made a promise to those stacks — some of which residents have been waiting patiently for years to be held and page-turned — that for every newly published book I read or got from the library, I would read one of those stoic waiters-in-line.

A closet shelf given over to that which is way more valuable to me than clothes: BOOKS! And a fan, to keep them cool and fresh. Yes, I’m a little crazy about books. I’m okay with that.

Thus, two of the three books I talk about here are backlog: The Sense of an Ending and The Sisters Brothers. Interesting petty-Charlie fact: both of those books were Man Booker short listed in 2011, The Sense of an Ending ultimately winning the prize. As a follower of the Man Booker, I was all in that year for Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, and when it didn’t even progress to the short list, I declared all those that did so to be libera non grata. Luckily, I’m bad at remembering a grudge, and acquired copies of Ending and Brothers because others I know or read had written about them. So, here we go.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt, hardcover, 328pp, April 2011, Ecco

This is the second of Patrick deWitt’s novels I’ve read, the first having been Undermajordomo Minor about which I said, “It’s seriously playful – or playfully serious, and darkly illuminating or illuminatingly dark. It was very Wodehouse on acid while depressed and horny and homesick. I liked it. I think.” That was two years ago and reaching back, trying to remember, I have only a vague recollection. Not unusual, I read one hundred or more books each year and so it is only the very rare book that sticks — which is no reflection on the writing, but, rather, a snapshot of where I was at the time and whether or not what I read resonated with who I was in that moment.

I’m afraid The Sisters Brothers will turn out to be the same faint flashback. It was certainly different from anything I’ve read, which is a nice plus. The scenes were hard-edged, sharply drawn, yet somehow surreal and dreamlike, as if watching a Coen Brothers film while high. I found most of the characters unlikable, which shouldn’t be a disqualification, but right now, at this point in world history, politics being what they are, I’m perhaps not in a good place to read about self-centered, sociopaths with fungible (at best) morals.

Certainly I missed (or ignored) the deeper meaning, the journey to amorality and back again; killer brothers in the old west, one somewhat less psycho and more empathetic than the other, on a mission of murder for a man even worse than they are, lose everything along the way and return to a home they departed in violence long ago, to the literal bosom of their mother. I just wasn’t into it, what it meant to say about home, family, choices, violence, men, women, lots and lots of things, and I still don’t get how it beat Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child onto the Man Booker shortlist.

The Sense Of An Ending, Julian Barnes, Paperback, 163pp, May 2012, Vintage (originally published August 2011)

This was the winner of 2011’s Man Booker Fiction prize. It was also my first Julian Barnes novel, although, I owned in hardcover and had in my “to be read” stacks his Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur and George for years having been wowed by their synopses when published, but when I experienced one of my “I have to move again and to an even smaller space” they didn’t survive the purge.

I didn’t love this book. And that made me doubt myself and my erudition because a writer and intellect and human being I very much admire, Glenda Burgess, very much loved this book. You can — and should — read what she said about it here: GLENDA BURGESS REVIEWS Julian Barnes THE SENSE OF AN ENDING.

I am having difficulty articulating what I didn’t like, so I’ll start with what impressed me. The language is beautiful. The artistry of the structure of it, its shape, quite technically stunning. And its themes, the question; What are the limits of responsibility in the matter of how much your choices and actions influence and affect the actions of others? Where does taking responsibility become hubris and/or where does not accepting responsibility become dishonest and self-deluding?

Too, there is the question of how many versions of reality exist, as in, even without going into Einstein and physics theories, we live inside so many parallel universes made of the stuff of differing memories and points of view; we all see things through the filter of our own angles and frames of reference so what is truth? What is reality?

Julian Barnes explores this in what is more novella than novel and, as I said, in beautiful language, technically stunning and it is amazing how much he manages to fit  between the covers in such a few pages.

But … there seemed a disconnect to me between the level of insight, education, and experience of the characters and the ways in which they behaved, the choices they made. In particular, the voice of the narrator, Tony Webster, who I came away feeling couldn’t have been so jealously ignorant of others or ignorantly jealous as to not see what was there to be seen, or, even, not ask the obvious questions. It’s clear he’s not meant to be a completely reliable narrator, that being part of the clever construct of the story, but if the premise is he is grappling with his responsibility for events in other people’s lives, looking for a way of seeing through all the memories to what is an ultimate truth, well then, it felt as if it was more an intellectual exercise in which he’d already decided he really was not that important, thus largely relieving himself of responsibility — at the same time, remaining full of his own sense of self-importance. These dichotomies were not plot points, but rather, the weakness (for me) of the novel.

Like many a privileged white heterosexual male before him (and after him), Tony had the luxury of deciding which of the consequences of his choices he dealt with, in a society built to enable people just like him to have those choices. There is never really anything at risk here but his ego, the possibility he won’t be able to maintain the class-privileged view of himself he was raised to believe his due. And perhaps because that very disease is bringing us closer to Armageddon every day, it was off-putting for me in this novel.

The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin, Hardcover, 352pp, January 2018, G.P.Putnam’s Sons

Oh, how I loved this book. With each new year I carefully curate the first few reads to find one of those “A-HA! THAT! OH, YES!” experiences in an effort to start things off right. Well, The Immortalists was my third book of the year, but in a way similar to last year’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk [click here], —

(I talked about that here [CLICK IT] –and honestly, I cannot imagine another book equaling its effect on me any time soon, but I’m grateful even for coming close.)

— Chloe Benjamin’s novel gave me hope; people are still writing good stories well told, where things happen, movement and action equal to the interiority of the work. Yes. Good damn writing.

In this, the four Gold siblings; Varya,13; Daniel,11; Klara, 9; and Simon,7 on a hot, restless 1969 summer day visit a Roma fortune-teller, who Daniel heard has the ability to tell people the exact date on which they will die. The children enter, one at a time, alone, and emerge forever changed. We follow their stories, one after another, in the order of their deaths, and how each react individually and with one another to the existential threat hanging over them.

The predictions bring an intensity to living, the reminder that time is finite, opportunity to live and experience will be short. And whether or not they believe the predictions — and whether or not we do, or ought to — is never completely answered, the story combining what at first seems magic realism with behavioral insight: does fate happen to each of them or do they, by believing in it, make it happen?

Once I started reading this I was unable to stop, and, luckily (?) for me, I am suffering from pain and steroid-induced insomnia, from which The Immortalists served to distract me far more effectively than any of the painkillers I’ve been using. Thank-you Chloe Benjamin.

In addition to the compelling plotting, there is such accomplished rapid but never rushed pacing, always something moving, plot pieces coalescing in a marvel of literary pointillism that is never obvious or strained but fully engaging, painting vividly the eras through which the Gold siblings lived; there is Aids, 9/11, Afghanistan; and, too, delicate, intricate portraits of each of them and a layering of details proffered piecemeal, creating a literary chiaroscuro which grounds what might have been in less-skilled hands improbable or unbelievable stories in a tale which demands full investment of one’s attention, heart, mind, and appreciation for really damn good writing. There are so many lovely passages and striking lines, I hate to pick any out, but listen to this, close third narration from the heart of Klara after the youngest, Simon, who she convinced at 16 to run away with her to San Francisco, has died.

Still, Klara could not explain to anyone what it meant for her to lose Simon. She’d lost both him and herself, the person she was in relation to him. She had lost time too, whole chunks of life that only Simon had witnessed: Mastering her first coin trick at eight, pulling quarters from Simon’s ears while he giggled. Nights when they crawled down the fire escape to go dancing in the hot, packed clubs of the Village — nights when she saw him looking at men, when he let her see him looking. The way his eyes shone when she said she’d go to San Francisco, like it was the greatest gift anyone had ever given him. Even at the end, when they argued about Adrian, he was her baby brother, her favorite person on earth. Drifting away from her.

Freaking glorious, yes? If you ever lost anyone to death, or anger and disagreement, or distance, then that passage has that piercing ring of “A-HA! THAT! OH, YES!” sort of truth for which one lives when reading, for which as I said early on, I search at the beginning of each new year.

In conclusion, this is a beautiful novel, one of those I got from the library and which I will now need to buy to have with me, always, to join this family of books in which I surround myself. Of course, this means, I need to get rid of another. I think I can do that. Maybe even two.

So friends, thanks for reading. Don’t forget to share your love of their work with the authors who bring you joy. It’s the least we can do for our national treasures.

And for now, here I am, going.

One of my to-be-read (or read again) stacks – I got rid of clothes in my closet to make room for books.

Another closet shelf sacrificed to my to-be-reads, or read-agains.

Stack on the trunk by my bed — books I read in pieces, Miss Hanff is always nearby. When I feel lonely, or miss my aunt (often, she’s the woman who gave me reading) I dive into some Helene Hanff and feel at home and loved and safe.

Living room shelf — these have all been read, many are personal treasures; here live Elizabeth McCracken, Susan Elia MacNeal, Dorothy Parker, Edmund White, Louise Penny, and — well, you get the picture. Dear ones who bring me such joy.

My nightstand. Poetry; Stevie Smith, Edna St.Vincent Millay, Frank O’Hara, and short stories, Lydia Davis, Paul & Jane Bowles, James Purdy, Lucia Berlin, and more, and things move in and out of here.