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: Wrapping Up May

I read 13 books in May and have only talked about 6. So, I’m catching up with the rest of my May reads except for one, Celeste Ng’s GLORIOUS novel, “Little Fires Everywhere“, an advance reader copy of which I finally got my hands on. Since it is not being published until September and since I hate reading other people talk about books I can’t yet get, I’m going to reserve my hosannas and huzzahs about Celeste Ng’s genius and gift until closer to the book’s release date; except to say to you, PRE-ORDER THIS ONE!

Now, then, on to the books I am going to talk about, and wow, this has been a great month for reading. Let me start with a Twitter pal’s work;

His Majesty’s Hope (Maggie Hope Mystery, #3), Susan Elia MacNeal, Paperback, 334pg, 2013, Bantam

I love Maggie Hope. I love this series. And I love knowing I’ve four more of this heroine’s adventures waiting for me. That said, each of these novels stands alone, so start where you like, but reading the first two: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, and Princess Elizabeth’s Spy [click HERE to read what I thought about those] certainly enriches the experience of reading this installment in which Maggie continues her education and evolution as a secret agent working for Britain against the Nazi’s during World War II which has come to England with a vengeance. Dropped into Berlin to pose as a Nazi-sympathizer while delivering radio crystals to another undercover operative, Maggie sees an opportunity to gather essential information and despite the danger to herself and in defiance of protocol, she undertakes a mission of her own making, during which she meets a half-sister she didn’t know she had and discovers that no one is who they seem to be or who she thinks they are, including herself. By the end of this chapter of Maggie’s story, her efforts to uncover enemy secrets have exposed a darkness in and doubts about the world she thought she knew and everyone in it, including herself.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing is as graceful as ever, her plotting clever and breakneck paced, and her character development detailed and deep. In addition to that, she effortlessly weaves in history and period detail enriching the experience and taking the reader away into another time. Sadly, reading about Maggie fighting evil during World War II and one of her dear friends being gay-bashed spotlights uncomfortable parallels to the present. How has the world NOT learned the lessons that war should have taught about hate, bigotry, and narcissistic, pathological liars being elected to power? While reading this novel I had at least a reasonable expectation things would turn out okay in the end; an expectation I cannot, today, in the real world in which we live, think reasonable or likely.

But I loved this book and I’m not allowing myself number 4, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, until September. Well, that’s my plan. We’ll see if I — who cannot turn down a donut despite being supposedly seriously on a diet — can wait.

I read another of my series go-to authors in May, John Sandford’s 27th Lucas Davenport novel:

Golden Prey (Lucas Davenport #27), John Sandford, Hardcover, 416pp, April 2017, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

If you like Sandford, you like Sandford, and I really like him. I am a fan of both the Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers series and in this installment we have Lucas able to choose his own assignments thanks to having (in an earlier novel) saved the life of a very Hillary Clinton-esque politician who, in this novel, is running for president. She loses. Which was a little too unhappy an ending for me. Again. I mean, I’m still on medication from the IRL election. I don’t need it in fiction, too.

It was a month for detective novels. The next two were:

My Darling Detective, Howard Norman, Hardcover, 256pp, March, 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  and

The Long Drop, Denise Mina, Hardcover, 240pp, May 2017, Little, Brown and Company

Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective is a noirish romp in which Jacob Rigolet, personal assistant to a wealthy collector of art, and his detective lover, Martha Crauchet, become caught up in a crime committed by his mother, Nora, during which investigation are uncovered secrets, connections, and surprises. All of this is done with quirky style and whimsical (though never twee) humour tightly woven in a suspenseful and rollicking mystery plot with an explosive, Mack Sennett-like finale. I’ll say this, it’s not like anything else I’ve lately read, and that is refreshing.

Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a darker journey based on true events. It explores in disturbing and thought provoking ways what “guilty” means and the thin line between good guy and bad guy, and whether crossing the line — even for the greater good — is ever justified. Denise Mina is a smart writer who trusts the reader is also smart. I mean, when a modern novelist is courageous enough and has trust enough in her audience to make a Samuel Pepys reference, I say, “YES, MORE PLEASE.”

On an entirely different note, I read One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul, Paperback, 256pp, May 2017, Picador

— which was stunningly, often funnily, frequently painfully, open-veined, no boundaries, soul-searchingly wrought insight into being a woman, being of Indian ethnicity, being a daughter, being a lover, being human in today’s complicated, judgey, unforgiving, and often ridiculous world. Scaachi Koul has a gift for the pithy, hilarious, piercing one-liner coupled with the ability to quickly segue to a heartbreakingly honest confessional truism which leaves one saying, “Yes, exactly, I, too have felt that ache.” Caveat: I read this in one sitting which, I think, does it a great disservice because despite its drollery, it is a deeply serious work overall, in total, a sort of gut-punch of “wow, being not white, not male, not in the so-called club in this world sort of sucks.” Which, needless to say in these times, is a thing necessary to face, but, not particularly pleasant or easy to cope with.

And, finally, I end as I began, with a Twitter-pal, Pamela; she didn’t write the book, but, rather, read it and thought of me, recommended it a while ago, and it was only when making one of my regular visits to my friends at the local indie — The Curious Iguana — I remembered Pamela’s recommendation and picked it up. Wow. She knows me. So well.

Rules For Others To Live By: Comments & Self-Contradictions, Richard Greenberg, Hardcover, 320pp, October, 2016, Blue Rider Press

Richard Greenberg is the Tony Award Winning author of Take Me Out and many other perceptive, incisive, savvy, acute stage works. I am happy to say these essays — or, observations? —are every bit as sharp and moving and full of laughs, a-ha moments, and tears as are his plays — most of which straddle the line between comedy and drama, defying categorization.

Mr. Greenberg sculpts so many glorious lines I hesitate to choose among them, but, here goes.

She looked like an untaken photograph. There should have been a saxophone.

Success radiated from her like quills from a porcupine.

And there are many more surgically precise observations about people and places and situations, insights so imaginatively perceptive, one wants to approach Richard Greenberg, waving one’s hand like a child wanting the next piggyback ride from the big, strong, fun adult, pleading, “Do me! Me next!” so one might have one’s own Greenberg-metaphor to use forever as introduction so that one need never again try to explain one’s self. “Oh, lovely to meet you, my name is Charlie and I am like a place you visit infrequently which is never anything at all like you remember it; one of those night terrors where walls and doors and windows have all been rearranged into unfamiliar architecture through which you can’t find your way.”

Or, something like that only shorter and better. I feel as if Richard Greenberg could write me perfectly, because we are — save for his genius as a writer — alike in so many ways that as I read through the book I thought, perhaps, he’d been eavesdropping on my soul, or, he’d gotten the life I was supposed to have had. These:

Even in the thick of situations, and very happy about it, I don’t generally feel a part of things. I have a lot of friends who count on me to lend a sympathetic ear and give good counsel, but when I bother having a picture of myself…. As much as I enjoyed the party — as I enjoy most parties — in the cab after, I felt, as always, that I was heading back to freedom.

Serious people exist. But they tend to be drowned out by these others whose loudness, speed, shallowness, and ubiquity wear me down and diminish my capacity to go slow and think hard. It’ as though at some point it was decided the world was irreparably broken and all that’s left for us is to be connoisseurs of the wreckage.

I have a long history with people undergoing epiphanic breakthroughs, and it’s been demoralizing when it hasn’t been chilling.

When I am very old, I am going to become a walker. I am going to walk up and down the few streets of my neighborhood, taking everything in, and I will be wearing my green coat. Even in early spring, I will be wearing the green coat. It will be patched in places and threadbare in others. Already, my friend Linda has had to sew back on a button that fell off from sheer fatigue. I don’t discount the possibility that one day the buttons won’t all match. Some of them may not be flush with the buttonholes. This is fine by me. I will walk in my tattered garment, surveilling my immediate surroundings with a captious eye. People will start to notice me. I will become something of a local character.

I will have met my destiny, which is to be a flaneur, a walker in the city, as I would be already, were it not for my tendency to self-quarantine.

Yes. So precisely and decisively me, it is uncanny. Which Pamela saw. Which is why she suggested I read it, because reading it had, in her, done that a-ha thing of a bell ring of, “Oh, this is so much Charlie, he should read this.”

Because, you see, another thing I’ve in common with Richard Greenberg is a life-story where the time is measured not in years, but in the presence of remarkable women I have known, of which Pamela is one. We met on Twitter and then, because she urged me and arranged it we met in Washington, D.C. one day, which, for me, is something of a miracle since it required of me the panic-attack inducing activities of driving forty minutes to a Metro stop, boarding a train and riding 30 more minutes into D.C., and walking the city until the meet-up time — because so terrified am I of being late, and so every-time-I-do-it certain I will not be able to navigate the Metro and thus head hopelessly in the wrong direction — I arrived in the city approximately two hours before the appointed hour for the first in person embrace — of which I was also terrified. (See above faux Greenberg metaphor about me. I’m better long-distance and in writing than I am in person and long-exposure, both of which reveal me to be rather less of the good and more of the bad than I seem to be when able to edit — not that I manage to shorten anything when I edit — such as this; MOST of my editing/re-writing is about adding clarifying sentences and clauses and too effing many adjectives to try to explain myself — my virtual self, and excuse myself — my IRL self.)

Where was I? Oh, yes, Pamela. I’ll return to Richard Greenberg quotes:

I had no idea what she saw in me, but I didn’t question it….Some people say the same things in the same way to everyone they know. You think you’re conversing with them; you’re merely partnering their monologue. Jill had conversations that pertained to the person she was talking to. There was no double-dealing in this. She saw us.

That’s dear Pamela. Who has seen me — and I am not an easy see, and after having been seen require a lot of patience and effort at continuing to see — still, Pamela manages to find it in her heart to think of me when she reads a book she particularly likes and thinks I would enjoy. Like Rules For Others To Live By.

Remarkable women — by whom my life has been blessed — and remarkable books, like some in this blog entry. I hope for you, gentle reader, that your life has been as filled with the remarkable as has been mine.

Love and light and here I am, going.