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: “Unforgivable Love” (and a forgivable absence)

Thanks to Glenda Burgess and Paula Garner, I’m back. What’s that? You didn’t notice I was gone? Well, I was, and I read quite a few books since last I book-blogged on September 17 — thirteen. While I didn’t write about them here, I did so on my GoodReads & Amazon accounts. (Click HERE for my Amazon Profile link, where all my reviews can be found.)

But, before I get to how Glenda and Paula brought me back from the depths, and my thoughts about my latest good-read, Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott, I want to briefly discuss and link to my full reviews of the highlights from those I’ve read while not blogging.

First, the 5th installment in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope Mysteries, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante. (Click HERE for my full review.) I love this series. I love Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing. I love the way she manages to weave history into compelling plots, using characters I have grown to love, and, too, skillfully addressing modern issues while remaining true to the World War 2 period during which Maggie lives. If you’ve not read these, please do, and start at #1. There are seven so far and while I have numbers 6 and 7, I’m rationing. Or, trying to.

Next one worth a look is Christodora by Tim Murphy which was recommended by Garth Greenwell, need I say more? Maybe a little. Hopping in time from the 1980’s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis to the 2000’s and the lives of those left, and, too, those who barely register the horror of the epidemic’s beginning or the strides made because of the work of those activists forged in fury from the struggle. Moving. Wrenching, even. (Click HERE for my full review.)

And, too, a five-star work of real brilliance, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. This book has it all. Beautiful prose, breathtaking sentences, incisive emotional landscaping, laugh out loud wit and subtle satire, and such intricate, page-turning plotting. It really is quite fantastic. (Click HERE for my full review.)

Finally, for a sweet, fast, heartwarming read, I recommend How To Find Love In A Bookshop, by Veronica Henry. A daughter inherits her father’s labor of love bookshop and from near ruin comes many a happy ending for nearly every character. You’ll feel like you’re part of the village in which it takes place, and you’ll smile. That’s more than enough nowadays, don’t you think? (Click HERE for my full review.)

So then, 400 words later, here I am, going on to the book I finished just last night.

Unforgivable Love; A Retelling of Dangerous Liaisons, Sophfronia Scott, Paperback, 528pp, September 2017, William Morrow Paperbacks

First, only fair to admit, I love unto the point of obsession all iterations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although I’ve not read the 1782 French original (and if you have, well, touch you) and lean rather more toward the 1999 re-telling,Cruel Intentions,  featuring Ryan Phillippe’s ass and his uncovering of the gay-sex between the characters played by Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson.

Ryan Phillippe’s ass

Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson, in bed, being blackmailed by Ryan Phillippe in CRUEL INTENTIONS

Thus, when I read about this novel in People Magazine, its premise of Dangerous Liaisons re-told in 1940’s Harlem appealed to me, promising to be something I’d eagerly devour. Of course, I’ve been fooled before. Like a junkie, I read the book pages in any magazine I can get my hands on, and while I’m not a fan of People — and that sentence is another blog entirely — my sister subscribes and I tear out the book page and read all the quick-synopses, frequently suckered in by a good press-representative spin. All too often I then find myself starting one of these books and saying, WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY TALKING ABOUT/WHO PAID THEM OFF – THIS IS AWFUL!

Luckily, with Unforgivable Love, that was not the case.

Sophfronia Scott’s writing vividly brings to life a period, a Zeitgeist, a social milieu, and emotional landscapes with attention to detail in scene painting and the interiority of characters’ thoughts, all contributing to a portrait of a historical time, place, and people whose lives and behaviors resonate in the now.

The story is told in close-third, from the point-of-view of four main voices, Mae Malveaux, Val “Valiant” Jackson, Elizabeth Townsend, and Cecily Vaughn.

Mae Malveaux is the reincarnation in this tale of the original’s Marquise de Merteuil, a character who can easily come off as irredeemably loathsome and cruel. In this retelling, she is given a backstory which means to explain her cold as ice manipulations and calculated ruination of others, but, in the end, the author allows the character to remain unlikable, her malevolence grounded in her psychoses but never excused; the reader feels some empathy for her but not sympathy, which is as it should be. As one character says, “I don’t know what good can come of anything that woman does….Still,….she is family and so I pray for her.” What is refreshing in Sophronia Scott’s version is that Mae is not demonized for her embrace of her sexuality. Her easy carnality is not portrayed as a character flaw, as is so often the case when writing about women (or, people, but, mostly, women) and it is not that which leads to her ultimate downfall.

Val is the tale’s iteration of the original’s Vicomte de Valmont, and here he is far more sympathetic from the beginning than he is in other tellings of the tale. Despite his being an inveterate and unapologetic hound with a sketchy past and income from illegal sources, who uses and tosses aside women like chattel, he is early on imbued with a conscience and questioning of what it is he has done, is doing, and what it does to others. Though he plays at faith as a tool of seduction, it reaches him, touches him, and manages to change him by opening his mind to ways of thinking he’d not previously explored. More than any other character, Val arcs and grows.

There is a great deal of faith in the story, the church and its ministers play a role in the story, especially in the denouement, but there is nothing preachy or pontifical, rather, Christian faith and community are central to the lives of some of the characters.

The most faith-driven of the main characters is Elizabeth Townsend, who might have been a minister had her world been different and had she not been raised to cede control of her life to first her father, then her husband, Kyle, a civil rights lawyer who is largely absent from her life and the narrative as he is off fighting fights in the deep South. Val is challenged by Mae to seduce and corrupt the faithful and pious Elizabeth, she who has not ever fully explored nor embraced her own truth, her true desires — desires on all levels, ambition, emotion, and sexual. It is in pursuit of a victory in overcoming Elizabeth’s reluctance to live and feel that both Val and Elizabeth are permanently shaken, altered, brought to awarenesses that have the power to destroy them.

Mae also sics Val on her young relative, Cecily, whose sexuality and self-awareness are nascent but bubbling to the surface, craving release. Val aims to corrupt her, part of Mae’s plot of revenge against a past lover who considers Mae unfit to wed, and has managed to get the virginal Cecily pledged to him, enraging Mae.

With so many seductions and so much scheming, this could easily veer into cheesy-soap-opera territory, but it never does. The sex scenes are sensual, lusty without being vulgar (though I have NO trouble with vulgar, licentious sex scenes) and at 506 pages, this is a longish read but it moves quickly in relatively short chapters and, despite my familiarity with the framework of the plot, there was a great deal of tension and suspense as I read, waiting to see how the characters would end up and by what method.

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So, there you have it; four weeks and thirteen books later, I am back to blogging, and for that I am grateful to my Twitter friend and accomplished author and blogger, Glenda Burgess, as well as Twitter pal and accomplished author (I know a lot of accomplished authors on Twitter), Paula Garner, who both managed on one of my low-down-lonely-blues Saturday nights to raise me up and out of my funk with their lovely and kind praise of my writing about books, words which made me miss doing this blogging thing, words that made me think maybe I had something worthwhile to add to the discussion. So, thank-you Glenda and Paula.

And now, here I am going.