Reading: 2017 Revisited

I don’t do “best” lists, because reading is so personal, thus, what follows is a revisit with some of the books that moved me, gave me some relief from the year that was, and maybe, even, some hope. Two absolute requirements for any book to land here: First, when looking over my GoodReads list, the number of stars didn’t matter so much as whether or not I remembered vividly the experience of reading the book; Second, part of that memory must be of the book having given me some comfort.

2017. A year in which my worst fears about the world, about the people with whom I share this planet, fears I have had since childhood about the bullies always winning, fears that those who play dirty and ugly will triumph over those of us who won’t or can’t behave in inhuman, immoral, disrespectful ways, fears that there are many, many people too stupid or venal or hypocritical or bigoted themselves to see through the venal, bigoted hypocrites plundering the world and mocking those many, many fools who’ve gullibly fallen for their b.s. and, too, sneering at the rest of us who are on to them but can’t seem to stop them; all of these fears interfered (interfeared?) with my ability to enjoy and focus on reading.

Still, I managed to finish reading 145 books, which is only a portion of the number I began, but this was not the year to screw with me: If I didn’t like the first 30-50 pages, I didn’t continue. I mean, hell, life is already dark enough, and the national disgrace seems determined to get us blown to nuclear smithereens, so who has time or joy enough to waste on books that don’t resonate for you?

So here, in an order as random as my rambling, discursive, babbling blog-writing, are those books I read in 2017 which I remember vividly and which brought me comfort and joy.

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, Kathleen Rooney

This is one of those books I know I will read again and again. It felt as if Kathleen Rooney knew me personally and was telling a story especially for me. I keep this in my room, in my stack of special books I must have near me at all times. A feeling not unlike reading Helene Hanff, with that passion for NYC. Loved. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Less, Andrew Sean Greer

Oh how I loved this book. Many reasons; great writing, happy ending, LGBTQ characters without tragedy or sturm und drang, I recognized myself in its aging (well, aging for a gay man) character, and I laughed and I cried and I felt seen and most of all, it made me think and reconsider what shape love might take and whether or not it’s still possible for someone of my advanced years and not so advanced looks, finances, or prospects. Gorgeous. Please, please read it. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Running, Cara Hoffman

Gut level writing, so new, so unlike anything else I’ve ever read, so beautiful and complicated and true and gorgeous and resonant; I was, as I said in my original write-up, gobsmacked. How often do you come across a book that is unlike anything you’ve ever read before, and yet, still extremely readable? A unique voice, a brilliant mind, and I cannot wait to hear more from this author. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, His Majesty’s Hope, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, (Maggie Hope Mysteries #3, #4, & #5) Susan Elia MacNeal

I love Maggie Hope. What a fantastic character. What wonderful plotting. What fascinating historical detail. What wit. What emotion. What compelling pacing and structure. I have in my possession Volumes 6 and 7, but I am forcing myself to wait because what do I do when I’ve no more? EXTRA BONUS: I followed Susan Elia MacNeal on Twitter, as I often follow authors whose work I admire and enjoy, and I send them thanks for their work. Most authors respond with a sincere thanks. Every so often, a conversation begins and a new reader-author bond is made, and that is magic to me, and quite the gift when an author busy with creating work to delight us all can take time to interact and chat. Susan Elia MacNeal is one such person of whom I have become fond outside the writer/reader relationship. And should I ever manage another trip to her city, we have a promised coffee (or drinks, or both) meet-up planned. [Link to my original review of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy] [Link to my original review of His Majesty’s Hope] [Link to my original review of Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante]

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Lee Mackenzi

This book is categorized as Young Adult, and while I get the need for categorization as far as marketing is concerned, this book is as delightful and certainly as mature (whatever that means) as many, many adult literary fiction novels — and HUGELY more fun, and despite its historical time period, far more modern of sensibility than many books nowadays. Ripping good read and I am eagerly awaiting its sequel.  [Here is the link to my original review]

I just don’t find this cover design at all appealing — from color choices to lettering to the piercing arrows.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

This book took me by surprise. Though it had been recommended to me, it’s cover art was so uninteresting I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up. Shallow, I admit, but compelling cover design is very important; it’s when the first impression happens and if the cover is lackluster, doesn’t in any way give some flavor of what the words hold, well, then the author has been done a disservice. Truly in this case because this was a fantastic read, one of those I could not put down. [Here is link to my original review]

Unforgivable Love, Sophfronia Scott

Dangerous Liaisons re-told, set in 1940’s Harlem, composed by a writer of exquisite and extraordinary gifts. I devoured this novel like a chocolate-peanut butter pie (I just had one last night, well, half a one — no, I’m not kidding. Would that I were.) Much seduction, scheming, and sensuality, all beautifully written in short, fast-paced chapters which leave you wanting more. Page-turner, I believe is what they call it. Oh, and speaking of friendly authors who interact with readers on Twitter, Ms. Scott is another who takes time out of her busy life to do so. Great writer. Great person. Can’t wait for her next novel. [Here is link to my original review.]

 

Rules for Others to Live By; Comments and Self-Contradictions, Richard Greenberg

My only non-fiction work included on this list — this really wasn’t the year for any more reality than that with which one had to contend daily from news of the world and our national disgrace’s latest travesty — and it is by Richard Greenberg, Tony Award winning author of the play, Take Me Out, which I saw and for which I will be forever grateful to Mr. Greenberg; not just because the play was genius, but, too, because it afforded me the opportunity to be twenty or so feet away from the staggeringly perfect performance of Denis O’Hare and the equally staggeringly perfect and nude body of Daniel Sunjata. These are debts I cannot repay.

Daniel Sunjata in Take Me Out (I took out, so to speak, the private parts)

Speaking of which, this book was recommended to me by a dear friend, Pamela, who has given me many existential gifts and joys, too, so it is fitting she would have brought this little gem to my attention. This collection is full of beautifully sculpted lines, laughs, tears, and personal truths and journeys made and observed keenly, described with precision and an a-ha level of intelligence and insight. I recognized myself in his angst and his joy, and I highly recommend you get this gem and find yourself in its pages. You will. [Here is link to my original review]

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki, with this follow-up novel to her last, California, has become one of my pre-order/purchase authors. I know I will want her books on my shelves, in my possession, a place fewer and fewer writers warrant as I age. This timely book explores the ways in which we create ourselves in the modern world, inventing social media personae, treating life as if we were appearing in a reality show. It is both prescient and terrifying in exploring the consequences of personal delusion and deceit, and once again displays a laser-like insight into the ways in which people think, love, live, and lie, that is — in my humble reader’s opinion — Edan Lepucki’s special gift. [Here is link to my original review]

So, there are eleven books I enjoyed in the past twelve months. Here are a few more about which I either didn’t write, or wrote very little because the authors are best-sellers and so much has been written about the books already, I didn’t think I had anything to add. But, in no particular order I also enjoyed:

Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Glass Houses, by Louise Penny

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay

There were also some disappointments in reading this year, mostly having to do with books so many other people loved which left me cold. Or, lukewarm at best. I am always in those situations plagued by my insecurity about my lack of intellectual heft, worrying I’m just not smart enough to get what it is everyone loves. This is often accompanied by hubris along the lines of, “Well, they’re all in the same little circle of MFA – literary fiction insiders club, and I’m brave enough to say the emperor has no clothes, or, anyway, the clothes aren’t that nice.”

But I shut up about those. I don’t write about books I don’t like, and I try, even when I am not a fan of something, to keep in mind it was made by someone with an honest, heartfelt effort, they’ve offered a piece of who they are on the page for us. I try to honor that, even when the pages don’t particularly thrill me. There is enough put-down in the world, I don’t wish to add any more.

So, I thank you for taking this ride with me. I thank those of you who read me for doing so, and those of you who read books along with me, I am grateful for you, and those of you who write and edit and publish and publicize and sell the books we read, I bless you for the gifts you bring to the world. So grateful. You do the work of angels, because I am not the only one in the world whose life has been made infinitely better by having books, loving books, living inside the world of books.

Particular special thanks to my favorite independent booksellers at The Curious Iguana,[click here and visit them — and drop in if you are anywhere nearby, ever — so worth the trip]  where Marlene has made a haven for we Frederick (and surrounding areas, and drop-in tourists, and DC weekend trekkers) readers and book lovers. As Marlene and staff are well aware, when I am low, or when I am happy, or when I am anywhere near the neighborhood, I drop in and babble and gossip and compare notes and all that sort of thing, until I remember, “Oh, this is a business and they have work to do and actual customers to wait on!” Love to you all.

And so, now, having done my year-end list, off to begin a new year of reading. And here I am, going.

Reading: Fall-ing out of August

In this post I visit Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation; Andrew Sean Greer’s Less; Carys Davies The Redemption of Galen Pike; Ross MacDonald’s The Wycherly Woman; and Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver.

Impeach The Motherfucker Already. Me, modeling my pussyhat and ITMFA pin, made for me by my dear Twitter pal, Dierdre.

August is coming to an end, a time when I usually remark about how quickly the year has flown and look forward to my favorite season, Fall. Not in 2017, I’m afraid. It seems since January we’ve suffered through at least a decade, every day bringing a new horror, abomination, defilement of decency, and a lowering of the bar as to what constitutes acceptable behavior, all thanks to the sociopathic buffoon who somehow managed to ride a wave of hate and deceit into the highest position in the land, surround himself with racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, classist, fascist  toadies, bigots, and hypocrites of every stripe, all of them determined to chip away at all that is good and kind and right about this country, to reverse the progress we’ve made toward equality and peace, and move the world backward to a time when only old heterosexual white men claiming to be christian had any power or say.

I wake every day with only a few seconds of joy before I remember what’s been done and being done to this country, to this world, and I am filled with fear and sorrow.

So, I escape into literature. As much as I can. Here then are the last few with which I filled my end of summer days.

Standard Deviation, Katherine Heiny, Hardcover, 336pp, May 2017, Knopf

From the accretion of telling, penetrating details in episode after sharply, wittily drawn episode Katherine Heiny builds a hard to describe but fascinating whole in her debut adult novel, Standard Deviation.

Graham Cavanaugh divorced his first wife, the outwardly staid, stable, and sturdy Elspeth, to wed his second, the unbound, unfiltered, and unafraid Audra, a union which produced Matthew, a son whose results on educational and emotional tests fall outside the standard deviation, resulting in a diagnostic label of Aspberger Syndrome. How these four characters interact with others and navigate the confusing, noisy, complicated modern world is the landscape Katherine Heiny uses to map many varieties of love, leaving, and loss in ways insightful, humorous, touching, poignant, and ultimately eloquently revelatory.

Katherine Heiny manages the sleight-of-prose trick here of using humor — and this is funny, indeed in a sophisticated, sly, dry way — to explore the unknowable distances and secret, private spaces in all relationships, even the most loving, tender, and treasured. Autistic Matthew is hardly the most emotionally reserved and touchy of the people here; all have their own manner of arms-length-ing others, an observation the author elucidates subtly through action. One is taken by surprise as one comes to the end of what started off feeling like yet another light-hearted, near-sarcastic take on the dilemmas of the privileged but has turned into a moving examination of what love is, what it takes, what it does, and how it grows and goes and sometimes, makes for wisdom.

Less, Andrew Sean Greer, Hardcover, 272pp, July 2017, Lee Boudreaux Books, Little Brown and Company

One of the many pleasure of reading is discovering an author whose voice speaks to your soul and realizing, “They have a backlist!” So it is for me with Andrew Sean Greer and his most recent novel, his sixth published work, Less.

There are novels with indelible opening lines, for me, the ideal being Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays:

What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.

It has stuck with me since the first time I read it. Of course, it’s followed by another 200-some wide margined, amply spaced pages of exquisite genius during which Joan Didion manages with her precision of language and laser focus what most novels — no matter the page count — never even hint at.

Point being, I remember Play It As It Lays not just because of its opening line — which is brilliant — but because what follows is equal to the opening.

With Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, the order is twisted: when you reach what seems the inevitable, only possible final line, the preceding 250-some pages — which might have seemed twee or gimmicky in less skilled literary hands — feel earned and right and have that heft of, “Oh, I’ll always remember this.”

And what more can one ask of a book but that it gives you something you will always remember?

So, perhaps I ought synopsize rather than babble. Our hero, Arthur, a self-defined failed (or failing) author about to turn 50 receives an invitation to his boyfriend of the past nine years wedding. To someone else. Desperate to avoid the ceremony without saying no and seeming broken, he accepts a motley deluge of invitations to literary events and opportunities which will take him around the world, making it impossible to attend his long-loved one’s nuptials to someone else.

On the trek which takes him through Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India and Japan, he falls in love (maybe) and suffers humiliations real and imagined and faces his fears about and the realities of being a gay man alone, turning 50, which equals being a corpse in the youth-oriented world of modern gay life and hookups. Listen:

Arthur Less is the first homosexual ever to grow old. That is, at least, how he feels at times like these. Here, in this tub, he should be twenty-five or thirty, a beautiful young man naked in a bathtub. Enjoying the pleasures of life. How dreadful if someone came upon naked Less today: pink to his middle, gray to his scalp, like those old double erasers for pen and ink. He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’s generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty. How are they meant to do it? Do you stay a boy forever, and dye your hair and diet to stay lean and wear tight shirts and jeans and go out dancing until you drop dead at eighty? Or do you do the opposite — do you forswear all that, and let your hair go gray, and wear elegant sweaters that cover your belly, and smile on past pleasures that will never come up again?

It goes on, even more eloquently, in ways that made this 50-something, aging gay man with no role models, none of the cohorts I knew when young having survived (in life, or in my life) to show me how to age, especially how to age alone; and age alone here, in a location where the gay community is of limited scope, limited imagination, and just as youth obsessed as the WB network. So, there, on page 22 of a novel mostly funny and warm and comforting, I cried in recognition.

There are so many funny, touching, glorious, beautifully structured, recognizable moments in this skillfully, artfully written novel, I could spend pages and pages quoting, but that would waste the time you ought to spend reading this remarkable, moving novel in which the angst of aging, regret, and self-delusion are described full-blown with humor and warmth and compassion. This novel is uplifting without being saccharine and I could not have loved Less more.

The Redemption of Galen Pike, Carys Davies, Paperback, 176pp, April 2017, Biblioasis

I’m fascinated by good short stories and many of the ones in The Redemption of Galen Pike are very good, one or two bordering on great in the manner of Paul Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, or Elizabeth McCracken. While the settings of the stories vary widely, most of the primary characters are located in the same place: lonely people, living in the empty chasms of unknowingness between people, the spaces between. Some are trying to bridge the abyss, others are resigned to their solitude and sorrow. The prose is deceptively simple while managing to contain depths and shadows and layer after layer of meaning and surprise — there are many twists, unexpected gasp-making and/or tear-inducing reveals.

Piece of advice: You’ll want to read them all, right away. Don’t. It takes away from the impact. They should be savored and spread out, because reading them together gives them a sense of sameness they don’t really deserve nor benefit from. And if you MUST read them all at once in the first go-round, then go back and read them again, slowly, one a week or so, when you’ve time to savor the language and the emotional construction.

The Wycherly Woman, Ross MacDonald, Paperback, Bantam, January 1073, Bantam

I was turned on to Ross MacDonald by Eudora Welty. or, rather, by the collection of their correspondence, Meanwhile There Are Letters, which I love and adore. Too, once I knew I had to sample his work, I hied it to the local used bookstore and picked up a few mass market Bantam paperbacks from the late sixties, early seventies for $3.98 each, all of which posted original cover price of $1.25. Discounting the problem that print this small is something I try to avoid now in deference to my weary six-decades-of-heavy-reading eyes, I love the look and feel  of these paperbacks, they hurtle me time-machine-heartwise to my protected, rural youth where the only place to buy books was the Read’s Drugstore in Westminster, which had a wall full of books, every one of which it seemed imperative that I have. I got my allowance on Saturday, and, usually, we went to “the city” that day and I would blow my $2 on a book and a comic book; I was a sucker for true love and heart-throb and romance comics, an addiction which was disapproved of by my mom, who refused to buy the comics for me, so I would take them to the checkout myself, when no one was looking, and all hot and tingly with shame, knowing I was again doing something I wasn’t — as a boy — supposed to be doing,  I would usually get (or imagine I was getting) a sneer of disapproval from the clerk. How early we learn shame.

But I loved those comic books, the intensity and the colors and the style. And, in the same way, I love my Ross MacDonald paperbacks, now browned at the edges, brittle, aged. Except for the writing which is as fresh and vibrant and sharp as ever it was. The clipped noir dialect. The snarked snaps of hard-won wisdom from the rode rough and put away wet, been there, done that, hard knocks, hard-headed, soft-touch, iron willed, bloody knuckled hero, Archer, are brilliant. I mean that — brilliant.

I’d tell you the plot, but, it isn’t the plot you read these for. It’s the style. As is often the case in MacDonald’s Archer series there is a screwed up family, someone missing or dead, lots of wrong turns and detours and misdirection and deception and good intentions gone bloodily, homicidally bad.

Loved it. Not unlike one of my old family reunions, albeit with a few more bullets and knife wounds.

 

Unraveling Oliver, Liz Nugent, Hardback, 272pp, August 2017, Gallery/Scout Press

Full disclosure: Let me begin by saying that I’ve a personal connection to this book. That’s right. I’m in the acknowledgements. Well, okay, maybe not technically, but, Liz Nugent does say:

Thank you to Duchess Goldblatt and her loyal devotees, ….

You only need read my title page to see I have LOOOOONG identified myself as a devoted catechumen  of Her Grace, Duchess Goldblatt. So, see there? I’M IN THE ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS OF A GREAT BOOK. Life goal = check.

Now about this book, Liz Nugent’s fiction debut which was named Crime Novel of the Year by the Irish Book Awards — it’s a WOW! Don’t pick it up unless you have a stretch of uninterrupted time in which to read because you won’t want to stop — may not be able to stop.

Bestselling children’s author, charmer, and sociopath Oliver opens the book by saying, “I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.” He’s just brutally beaten his wife. His sick reasons for the attack and the truth of him are subtly and surprisingly revealed, strand by horrifying strand, clue by riveting clue, through short chapters in alternating first person voices from the people who have known him throughout his life — or, thought they knew him.

Liz Nugent has a great gift for tessellation, the colorful and grippingly intriguing pieces of the mosaic of Oliver’s life compellingly meted out in fast-moving plot and prose. Wonderful read.

**********

So, there we have it, my last five reads of August and a paragraph or five of my rage let loose. I am truly grateful for the gifts of literature and the work of authors — past and present and future — which serve to help me escape, and to elevate and educate and illuminate. Thank-you writers, thank-you editors, thank-you copy editors, thank-you agents, thank-you publicists, thank-you indie booksellers, and thank you Twitterati, who enrich my world in ways indescribable, incalculable, and unbelievably loving and light-giving and peace-making.

Love to all, even those buffoons and bigots I now think I hate but am working to see the light in, and so, here I am, going.