Reading: Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



READING: Books are my religion . . .a lesson from Ann Patchett


Charlie Smith 3

I am inserting this picture, taken the day AFTER I posed with Ann Patchett, because in THAT photo I look HUGE and AWFUL — and so, I wanted to prove I am still a hipster cat-burglar who gyms it up 6 days a week.

Apologies (and thanks) to those asking if I’m okay and why my entries have been so infrequent. I’m immersed (not to say, drowning) in yet another edit of “LIBERTYTOWN” and, too, a couple of other writing projects which came banging at the doors of my brain/heart/soul, even as I hid away, weeping, whispering, “There’s no one home!” Somehow, the stories and words inside me, or, floating around me, or, something, will not let me do what I’ve been trying to do, which is to surrender to the fact that in the same way I was not a Broadway star, not the first American Pope, not someone who was ever going to be successfully in a love relationship, not someone with an actual income and home of his own, I was also NOT A WRITER. Which, is an overly long (SURPRISE!) way of saying, “I’M TRYING TO WRITE AND I CAN’T BLOG WHILE I’M DOING THAT!” I spent hours yesterday trying to finish ONE SENTENCE, and I never really did – it is slow going, my dears. In the meantime, I am reading. And, since this is sort-of, sometimes, supposed to be a Book(ish?) Blog – thought, “Ok, I’ll catch up with that!” So, here I am, going.


Ann Pachett and Charlie

This is Ann Patchett after I told her I stalked another writer, and still, she bravely posed with me. She is a wonderful, lovely person – radiates warmth, wit, intelligence, and a glowing goodness.

Monday, March 23, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Ann Patchett. She was the featured speaker at Frederick Reads, and not only was she smart, charming, funny, brilliant, engaging, and fun, she gave book recommendations and said (far more eloquently) “Books are my religion.” Mine too. In the days since, procrastinating while I ought to have been editing, I ventured to her Parnassus Books site [click here], and from there, her blog [click here], and in doing so realized I’d not spoken about what I’ve been reading since January when Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You [click here], rocked me. I am still talking about it, talked about it and wrote down the title for Ann Patchett even. But, I have read 23 books since then, and here, in brief, we go, highlights only.



I am a huge fan of the Agatha Raisin mystery series, written by M.C. Beaton and edited by Hope Dellon of St. Martin’s Press. I read #6: Agatha Raisin and the Terrible Tourist; #7: Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death; #8: Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham; and #9; Agatha Raisin and the Witch of Wyckhadden. Every visit with Agatha is like Continue reading

Zeitbites Monday: Gainful Un-enjoyment. Link me up.

My world is somewhat not in the greatest shape right at the moment, but, I know that there are much bigger problems in the world than my inability to find gainful employment, a literary agent, or, actually, a place and way to live. SO… if you know of someone looking for a caretaker, or a long-term house/pet sit, or a walker who can toss of the witty bon mots with the best of them — let me know. I’d prefer leaving the U.S. at this point.

Enough intro whining! I Tweeted this today– the joy of this child, already loving Sondheim — I defy you not to smile or weep or both from this — LOVE THIS KID!

SOOOOOO, moving on — if you people would JUST Continue reading

READING: “The Headmaster’s Wife” by Thomas Christopher Greene

headmasters_wifeLife is so often not what we expect. We are conditioned to believe that if we behave in particular ways, the results and rewards will fall within certain parameters; predictable, with challenges for which there are practical solutions. But, of course, that is all too often entirely untrue. Life can be a horrifyingly scary thing; one after another shock, disappointment, loss and trauma with which one deals the best one can, which is, sometimes, not very well at all. Life is, in fact, rarely ever what we expect, and the lives of others rarely ever what they appear to be from outside looking in.

In Thomas Christopher Greene’s riveting new novel, The Headmaster’s Wife, (CLICK HERE FOR THE ST. MARTIN’S PRESS BOOK/AUTHOR PAGE) the reader is taken on a whirlwind ride from the moment the headmaster of “Vermont’s elite Lancaster School”, Arthur Winthrop, is found wandering naked in Central Park and begins to tell his story to the interrogating officers. The journey is complex, marked by emotional devastation, the collision of good intention with the reality of life’s inevitable setbacks, and the efforts of good, decent people to cope with the  feelings of impotence in the face of personal disaster.

I won’t give you any more of the plot as I do not want to spoil it for you, and Greene has managed to compose the symphony of loss in such a way that the reader is – like the characters within – also knocked for loops, your belief about what is going on is shaken, shattered, and one’s assumptions upended. The writing is facile and deeply felt, both technically adept and emotionally charged. I had some issues with the ending, not unlike the issues I had when reviewing Still Life With Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen (READ THAT HERE) in that it seemed too convenient, too far-fetched a stretch of serendipitous, fortuitous fate which seemed, somehow, dishonest as finale to such a scathingly heartfelt story told so unsparingly and with such insight. Listen:

And then she realizes that they are more alike than she has imagined. Like her, he is broken. And she thinks perhaps this is what love is: letting someone else see the part of you that shatters like glass. All of us are broken in our own way. And in that moment, on her birthday, looking over the black trees to the bright lights of the other side, she knows she will marry Arthur. They will grow old together, broken together, and as long as they both don’t completely shatter at the same time, they might find a way to pick each other off the ground.

That is a hauntingly insightful precis of what constitutes so many loves, so much of life. It is a wisdom earned by having journeyed through a certain amount of pain, having had to make painful and questionable compromises, having learned that there is no black and white, that life is, quite determinedly, in many ways, gray.

This is a well-written book for grown-ups. Fast (be prepared to stay up all night reading it, you won’t want to stop) and cinematic in its scene set-ups and intensity. I recommend it.

READING: This IS a BookBlog, dammit!

I read so you don’t have to. And so I stay sane. Sort of. I have been told that my blog is too wide-ranging, unfocused, that one cannot land here and know what to expect. I have been told that my blog is too personal. That I over-share. That my dysthymic and bipolar ups and downs are too extreme and sometimes frightening. I have been told that there are lots of people who don’t want to come to my blog and run into posts featuring half-naked men or penis. I’ve been warned that I am too screedy and harridan-like about GLBT issues and politics. I have been told that I have too many personalities. I have been told I make people sad. I make people angry. I think too much and so make others think too much. Or that my thinking makes them feel guilty for not thinking enough, or for not wanting to think, or for not having thought or seen the things I see that upset me. I have been told my writing makes people feel judged. I have been told . . .  and told . . .  and told . . . and warned, “If you want to [FILL IN THE BLANK: Make money / Get an agent / Have more regular readers / Get a job / Get a lover / Keep friends / etc] you are going to have to [FILL IN THE BLANK WITH WHATEVER ADVICE YOU CAN IMAGINE TELLING ME WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME AND HOW I SHOULD HIDE OR FIX IT]. I thank you all for the advice and the help, but, I am who I am.

And, honestly, people, REAL readers of REAL books WANT to be challenged and expanded and surprised and GROWN. And, so, no, I don’t talk about BOOKS every day, every entry. BUT IT IS MY READING THAT HAS MADE ME THIS WIDE RANGING, UNRELIABLE NARRATOR, UNPREDICTABLE TYPE – and so, in essence and in truth and at its foundation, ALL of what I write is about having read – and the reading I am doing every day. So, please, I beg you – in this rather LONGEST EVER intro – READ ME. SHARE ME. FOLLOW ME. LOVE ME.

  • And, if every so often (or, well, you know, often) there is dick and swearing and politics and ranting and anger and INSANITY and witness to my decline involved – hey, that’s what friends (and readers) are for. And now, on to today’s entry . . .

headmasters_wifeYesterday was Tuesday, which – to me – means NEW BOOK RELEASE DAY! So, as I do every Tuesday, I headed to one of my very favorite places in the entire world, THE CURIOUS IGUANA (click here to visit their site) and did one of my very favorite things, perused the books. I came home with The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene, (CLICK HERE FOR THE U.S.MACMILLAN/ST.MARTIN’S PRESS PAGE FOR THE BOOK) for which I have been waiting, and I started it last night. I stayed up way too late, rapt, hypnotized, and I will share at length once I have completed it. I must note NOW that it is published under the St. Martin’s Press aegis, and that has ALWAYS been one of the houses I dreamed would publish my novel. Still dreaming. Still waiting to snag an agent.

In the meantime, turns out that the owners of The Curious Iguana, Marlene and Tom England, are hosting a – well – here, read for yourself:

By now you’ve probably noticed the phrase “Get to know your world” on our front window, on our business cards, and so on.

Before we opened Curious Iguana, we labored over this five-word tagline. We wanted just the right phrase to express our big dreams for our little bookstore…a place where people could discover books that open windows to the wider world, a place that could help broaden the definition of “community.” 

This Saturday, March 8, at 7 pm, we are hosting a very special event that rings true to our “Get to know your world” objective. Please join us for Inspiring Change – Microfinance, Fonkoze, and Women with Fonkoze USA executive director Leigh Carter and film producer/director Rob Rooy.

There’s not enough room in this email to describe all the wonderful work that Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest microfinance institution, is undertaking “shoulder to shoulder” with women in Haiti. Please take a few moments to read about Fonkoze here.

At our March 8 event, Leigh will share extraordinary stories of how Fonkoze is serving 250,000 Haitians–not only with micro-loans and other financial services, but with comprehensive education and health programs as well. Rob will show clips from Going the Distance, his powerful documentary on Fonkoze’s role in helping Haitians rise above poverty. There will be an opportunity to ask questions and to hear Rob and Leigh’s firsthand encounters with Haitian women who are overcoming tremendous challenges to achieve their dreams.

The March 8 event is free, and you will not be asked to make a donation (we promise!). Just come, bring a friend, listen and learn, and be inspired by what’s happening in a country that rarely makes the news these days. Please know that if you decide to shop at the Iguana this Saturday, or any day this month, a percentage of your purchase will support Fonkoze.

We hope to see you this Saturday!

Tom and Marlene England

Amazing, right? Not only are they booklovers, they are worldlovers. Truthlovers. And, as fate would have it, I know Rob Rooy! His daughter, Andrea, was one of my ALL-TIME-FAVORITE students EVER! I still have the fondest of memories of her singing I Am So Easily Assimilated from Candide. She is now a tenure-track professor AND a member of Cirque Du Soleil. IN CHINA. Yeah. That’s right. Two kinds of genius. Oh, and she has a HILARIOUS Twitter feed as well. Small world, right?

And Mr. Rooy, like the Englands, has always listened to my UNRELIABLE NARRATOR self with patience and seeming amusement. You know, like I asked all of you to do in today’s intro? The world needs more people like Rooy and the Englands, who not only let others be who they are, but welcome and encourage their explorations.

Anyway, this IS a BookBlog, dammit. It’s just a really discursive, meandering, rambling – some might even say PROLIX – one. Check out yesterday’s entry (CLICK HERE) – it was all about books. And my sad love-life. Because, people, we ALL read in a context. We read to inform (and escape – which is a way of informing) our world. So, come on. LOVE ME. Because I am feeling a little . . . well, let me let Jessica explain for me . . .

Lange Horror Monsters

But, dealing with my current demons . . . has left me . . .

Lange Horror ANcient

And I may need some assistance . . . DB, get ready, the end is nigh.

Lange Paulson Horror Hiding

I know you’ll come looking for me . . . right? RIGHT? HEY, IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?