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

A LONG INTRODUCTION . . .

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.

CATCHING (YOU) UP ON MY READING . . .

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.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE LAST 23 BOOKS

M.C. BEATON’s AGATHA RAISIN SERIES

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

Reading: “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng

“Everything I Never Told You”  by Celeste Ng, 297pgs, Penguin Press, 2014 [click here]

Everything I Never Told You

Click Cover for Penguin Press page and how to purchase

Some books are so carefully, lovingly crafted, some stories so startlingly, truthfully told, some authors so prescient and insightful, so gifted at recreating the journeys of real people’s lives with words, rhythm, and a near-supernatural ability to know what to include and what to omit, that turning to the last page, one resists reading the final phrase. Some books, once they come to an end, leave you with both a fullness for having experienced the emotional arcs of the characters, and, too, an equal ache of emptiness, because they are finished now. There is not another chapter.

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, is just such a book.

From its opening sentences:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

— the reader is riveted by the heartbreaks, the hopes, the secrets, the sorrows, the misunderstandings, the mistakes, those things misspoken, unspoken, and regretfully spoken by Lydia, her mother and father, Marilyn and James, her sister and brother, Hannah and Nath, and her neighbor, Jack. We come to know Lydia — and the others — through the thoughts and observances of each, the ways in which they see and miss one another.

This is a story about expectations and the cost of dreams. This is a story about discrimination both subtle and overt. This is a story about fear, especially the fear of saying and being out loud who one is and wants to be. This is a story about loving someone who doesn’t exist, of loving someone in secret, of loving someone less for who they are than from a longing to be seen and loved one’s self, and the tragedy of that love not being returned in that way.

The book begins with Lydia’s death and then goes back in time, jumps here and there and back again until arriving at that night when it happened. Along the way the characters’ weaknesses and strengths, wisdoms and ignorances are artfully limned, and though the end is inevitable given the opening sentence, the reader begins — as in real life having lost someone — to employ magical thinking in the hope Lydia’s death will be averted.

Ng’s prose is sculptural, her imagery often breathtaking. Listen to this memory of the early courtship of Lydia’s parents, James and Marilyn, having just painted his apartment and made love on the bed, pushed to the center of the room:

Later that afternoon, waking in the fading light, he noticed a tiny yellow blotch on the tip of Marilyn’s toe. After a moment of searching, he found a smudge on the wall near the end of the bed, where her foot had touched it as they made love: a dime-sized spot where the paint was blotted away. He said nothing to Marilyn, and when they pushed the furniture back into place that evening, the dresser concealed the smudge. Every time he looked at that dresser he was pleased, as if he could see through the pine drawers and his folded clothing straight to it, that mark her body had left in his space.

And this, much later when youngest child, Hannah, whose powers of observation border on preternatural — as are Ng’s — has realized at a family dinner that something horrible, world-altering is coming:

Hiding under the smooth white [icing], Hannah thought, was the pretend driver’s license, the Congratulations and the blue L-Y-D. Thought you couldn’t see it, it was there just underneath, covered up but smudged and unreadable and horrible. And you’d be able to taste it, too. Their father snapped picture after picture, but Hannah didn’t smile. Unlike Lydia, she had not yet learned to pretend. Instead she half shut her eyes, like she did during the scary parts of TV shows, so that she could only half see what came next.

That is a fantastic piece of writing. Almost as fantastic as another of Hannah’s precognitive perceptions, this one involving a drop of water trickling from Nathan’s hair described from page 210 to 212 that struck this reader with such force, I had to search Celeste Ng out on Twitter (I do not know her, she does not follow me, I am simply an appreciative — incredibly appreciative — reader) late last night to tell her it had left me breathless and weeping.

This is a stunning novel. And, as I said at the start, it left me both full from the glories of its prose and emotions, and empty, once finished, missing it. Fitting, that, as the life and death of Lydia does the same for all the other characters in the novel.

Read it. Really. Just read it.

I bought Celeste Ng’s “Everything I Never Told You” at my local independent bookstore, The Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE].

 

Two Hot Guys … But NOT in the GOOD way …

In less than 24 hours I will have begun a seven-day house/pet sitting gig at one of my favorite locations. Alone for seven days. And just in time, believe me.

The home to which I am going has warmly positive old-house mojo, it’s decadently comfortable, and sun beams through all the rooms as if a Broadway lighting designer plotted it. I am able to luxuriate in hours-long sessions of reading and writing there, not plagued by the restiveness, short-attention-span/inability to focus that has been upending me for the past year or so everywhere else.

bone clocksI have my reading material all lined up. Today, my favorite place to be in the real world, The Curious Iguana Bookstore [celebrating their ONE YEAR anniversary this weekend – check them out by clicking HERE], handed me a signed copy of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Definitely making the seven-days-alone cut.

Alone. I’m thinking I might not even go to the gym. People are REALLY getting on my nerves. Today, for example, I got to the gym later than usual because it was a Mom-day. I took my Mother on various errands, had lunch, spent time together. I adore her. We did not have an easy time during my teens to my late twenties but we have become wonderfully close in the past few years since I’ve started spending a day or two a week with her, driving her to hair salons and doctor appointments and – I’m sorry but she loves it- WalMart. And wonderfully honest. Today, for instance, she started crying because she was having a great deal more difficulty walking than usual. In fact, today she did what she had done the last time we were together; instead of just taking my arm to help her, she has entwined her fingers through mine, holding my hand. It doesn’t really add to the stability, it’s a comfort, need thing. For her. For me, it makes me both ecstatic – because she is holding my hand and trusting me – and so sad, because I am terrified of losing her.

So, yes, I get to the gym after this and I am spent. I need to sweat and elliptical and sauna. I do my cardio and push push push myself through the melancholy. I take a quick shower and head into the sauna which is blessedly empty. Until . . .

. . . two late teen/early twenty-something boys come in. First of all, I don’t wear my glasses in the sauna because the last time I did so the layer of protective-scratch-proof-whatever on which I had once spent a pretty penny MELTED into cloudiness and I had to replace my glasses to the tune of $400. So, I stopped wearing my glasses in the sauna and, lo and behold, unexpected good thing. I can’t really see anyone, they are mostly blurs, and this creates a magical, other-worldly distance.

Sadly, I can still HEAR them.

I’ve seen these boys before. Upstairs in the gym proper. They are not unattractive. Well, they are not unattractive physically. In particular, the one named Pat is quite sexy. His skin brings to mind the color and smooth, lickable look of Haagen-Dazs double-chocolate melted and mixed with whipped-cream. He’s not overly tall, tends to wear red gym-shorts which fall perfectly over his gorgeous ass, has long – as in a bit past the shoulder-length – dark, curly hair which he pulls into a semi-ponytail-bun arrangement – and, well, he’s the kind of young man about whom I think to my self, “If only I had Calvin Klein’s money and could buy myself a weekend with that one.” Apparently I am not alone in thinking this. Which I will get to. As he and his buddy – whose name I did not learn – got into the sauna they annoyed me from the get go.sauna

1) They turned on the light. Look, it’s NOT that dark in there and the light is JUST ANNOYING ENOUGH when one is sitting with eyes closed trying to meditate. And, HEY, I’M IN HERE WITH THE LIGHT OFF SO WHAT THE FUCK GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO TURN IT ON WITHOUT ASKING?

2) They were dressed in their sweaty workout clothes and shoes. The sign AT THE DOOR says to shower BEFORE getting in. I can’t STAND the smell of heated sweat and – WORSE YET – heated dirty sneakers. It is disgusting.

3) They had a conversation as if I was not sitting right there. Which is why I think it’s okay to give the physical description of him and his name, because he said all this, including his name, right in front of me – a complete stranger – so, he must not care who knows about it.

Pat was telling his friend – who I shall call, henceforth, Friend Of Pat – or, FOP, for short -that he (Pat) had been given a clean bill of health by his doctor when he went in to make sure he didn’t have genital herpes and to have his liver checked because he had been drinking so much this summer. Liver fine. No STD’s.

Although Fop said that one summer of heavy drinking was not enough to cause liver damage, Pat assured him that he had had SO MUCH to drink this summer, he wanted to be sure. Fop was, however, amazed that Pat could have hooked up with as many girls as he had in his life so far -and Fop was sure Pat didn’t even tell him about ALL of them – and not have gotten an STD. Fop said, “I figure you’re in your thirties by now.”

But, NO. Pat said he was in the high thirties five years ago when he had been dating [NOT USING HER NAME AS SHE WAS NOT IN SAUNA BLABBING] and by now he was in the high forties.

Fop said, “Oh right. We made that list back then.” And that he was only to seven. And lots of his friends were only at one or two. Pat said, “You need to get new friends.” And Fop then started answering Pat’s questions as to how many girls specific friends had had sex with. There then ensued a conversation about a young lady who had hugged Pat in a sexual way at Bushwallers (a downtown, Frederick, Maryland bar) this past weekend but he was busy that night. He’s going to hit her up this weekend though.

Wow. Pat, pretty as you are, only adding ten sexual encounters in five years, looking like you look with that hair, ass, and – my, the CHARM – well, back in my day in my particular mirror-balled, popper-sniffing neck of the woods that was we would have called a slow fortnight. (Yes, we said fortnight. I am either that literate-pretentious or that old. Take your pick.)

Look, here’s the thing, I am ALL FOR having consensual, responsible sex as often and with as many people as you can. Believe me. And if I looked like you, Pat (or Fop) I would be sexing it up nightly – no question. But here is what I would NOT be doing – talking about it in front of people who I DO NOT KNOW AND HAVE NEVER MET. And even if I was – I would not be doing it UN-SHOWERED AFTER A WORKOUT, in a sauna, dressed in my sweaty clothes and smelly shoes.

I exist. Yes, I am likely old enough to be your grandfather but that doesn’t mean you can pretend I am not there. I pay my own gym membership and I go there to relax and have some – strange as it sounds – peace and quiet and solitude. You don’t just take over a space as if it was empty when ANOTHER HUMAN BEING IS THERE. Say hello. Respect that they might NOT want to hear what you have to say. Say excuse me when you walk by. Say, “Do you mind if  I turn on the light?” If you MUST talk in the sauna – and you should NOT – remember that this is a public place so anything you say is PUBLIC.

And since you felt free to say all this (and more) in front of me, I guess you don’t mind who else knows about it.

You are both, no doubt, “hot guys” but, today, you proved that the only kind of hot you are is the sweaty, smelly, inconsiderate kind.

Yes, when two good-looking young men in a sauna do nothing but make me want to scream and kill, I definitely need to be in seclusion for a while.

Reading: Stephan Eirik Clark’s “Sweetness #9”

Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark, Little, Brown, $26 (400p) ISBN 978-0-316-27875-1

SWEETNESS COVER 2From the publisher:

It’s 1973, and David Leveraux has landed his dream job as a Flavorist-in-Training, working in the secretive industry where chemists create the flavors for everything from the cherry in your can of soda to the butter on your popcorn.

While testing a new artificial sweetener–“Sweetness #9”–he notices unusual side-effects in the laboratory rats and monkeys: anxiety, obesity, mutism, and a generalized dissatisfaction with life. David tries to blow the whistle, but he swallows it instead.

Years later, Sweetness #9 is America’s most popular sweetener–and David’s family is changing. His wife is gaining weight, his son has stopped using verbs, and his daughter suffers from a generalized dissatisfaction with life. Is Sweetness #9 to blame, along with David’s failure to stop it? Or are these just symptoms of the American condition?

David’s search for an answer unfolds in this expansive novel that is at once a comic satire, a family story, and a profound exploration of our deepest cultural anxieties. Wickedly funny and wildly imaginative, Sweetness #9 questions whether what we eat truly makes us who we are.

This book was a little terrifying because none of the horrifying crimes against humanity committed by the corporate characters within its pages seemed even slightly outlandish or impossible; in fact, the profit-driven sins seem mild in comparison to the things we know have happened and are happening daily in corporate offices around the globe.

Well written, often funny, complete with attractively repugnant anti-hero, irony, hipster-attitude-cred, the occasional over-the-topness, conspiracy theories, and a hyperbole of paranoia – which, actually, seems completely rational — Sweetness is a quick and entertaining and horripilating read. Especially if you – like me – tend to nosh on bagged snacks while page-flipping. Be warned, have a piece of fruit instead.

As always, I bought my copy at my AMAZING local independent bookseller, THE CURIOUS IGUANA – click anywhere in this sentence to GO THERE! And you should. Tell them I sent you.

 

Reading: “Thunderstruck and Other Stories” by Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken

Click on photo to purchase book

I confess it: I am in love with Elizabeth McCracken.

Not my usual sort of love that results in flowers and candy and stalking and restraining orders; but the kind of love that is born of recognizing a like heart, a soul of such intense and exquisite grace and goodness that I cannot help but be awestruck and admiring, the kind of love that makes me want to be a better person so as to be worthy of the object of my affection.

I read the first eight pieces in Elizabeth McCracken’s nonet, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, in a bacchanalian daze of literary ecstasy, transported to rapture by their divine coalescence of intense emotion and inspired prose. These creations composed of universal truths writ simply and singular beauties born of the tragedy found all too often in those simple truths are mis-labeled; they are something beyond “stories” – I dub them “Exaltations.”

I stopped before the ninth. Weeks ago. Three reasons.

1) I did not want it to end. As long as I did not begin the title exaltation, then I would still have it to look forward to.

2) Being a book blogger would require that I write about the collection once I had finished reading it and I felt myself neither skilled nor hubristic enough to think I ought to write about an author as accomplished and gifted as Elizabeth McCracken.

3) I follow (well, honestly, stalk) Elizabeth McCracken on Twitter and when I was of late suffering another of my periodic extreme dysthymic  lows, within moments of my public lament, Ms. McCracken voiced concern and support. Such kindness and connection should probably preclude my writing about her work. However, I am not remunerated for my discussions of books. I write about literature only because I love it and only when I am moved.

So, today, I put on my Jane Bowles “indeed I am a writer even if I’m not writing” pantaloons, planted myself in a coffee shop on the theory that I’d be less likely to make a spectacle of myself, keening at my loss as I read the final of Elizabeth McCracken’s lovingly honed sentences alone in a caffeinated crowd of strangers, and I read the final and title exaltation in Thunderstruck.

I loved it. And, I am moved. Oh my, so very, very moved.

And so I began to write this recounting of my experience with the book; I don’t call what I do “reviewing” because it isn’t. It is appreciation. It is sharing my gratitude and thanks for inspired and inspiring and provoking and delighting creations. As I tried to find words to describe how Elizabeth McCracken had managed to capture the feeling of losing someone, of being left behind – all its sadness and never-ending-ness – and yet done so without being maudlin or mawkish or lachrymose, into my Twitter feed gushed the wailing outpouring of loss and sorrow and grief; Robin Williams is dead. A suicide.

Somehow, you see, this all connects – personally – to me. Because this collection is all about loss and absence and how those left behind deal with both, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live (to quote Ms. Didion) — and it was my speaking of self-harm, of creating an absence where I stand and Tweet that prompted kindness from Ms. McCracken, who has known such loss, much loss, terrible loss of her own and thus, was kind to me, and I read her, I follow her, and chose today of all days to finish Thunderstruck, and today was the day that Robin Williams chose not to go on saying “Yes, I will keep trying.” A choice I understand, a choice I have to determine whether or not – every day – to make, every day when the choice to keep going ought to feel like a victory but so often feels like a failure, a loss.

This collection, Thunderstruck and Other Stories, understands that choice, and all the other choices in line with and resulting from it. It is about going on in the face of seemingly insurmountable sorrows and absence; filling in the gaps. These are the stories of those gaps, or, rather, the exaltations.

I choose the word with some care; in its archaic use in alchemy, exaltation meant a purification and intensification through distillation, a refinement, and too, a state of extreme spiritual elevation, euphoria, approaching unity with the divine. Elizabeth McCracken distills the quotidian through seemingly casual observation; but there is nothing casual about it. Her vision is laser-like, her delineation of detail surgical in its precision. She limns the dimensions of sorrow and loss in breathtakingly moving prose, sentences of such musicality, sung through with a vulnerability that leaves the reader feeling almost an intruder, except, of course, in those instances where the indisputable, immutable honesty of the sorrow cuts to one’s own soul, an echo of one’s own loss, and re-opens wounds, wakens scars one carries – in which instances it seems as if Eliabeth McCracken has intruded upon one’s own secret place, made her way into your soul and turned iit inside out and onto the page.

I read this book and was taken back – again and again – to my own losses, my father, my aunt, and most recently, my sister. I was moved to write to Ms. McCracken mid-way through my first reading to say:

The paragraph on page 131 that begins with “A liar and a thief…” has more beauty depth emotion force content truth than most entire published novels. Your grasp of the solitude & eternal immediacy of loss is brilliant, heartbreaking, insightful, healing. Thank you a million times. Though we’ve never met, these stories strike me as if a dear friend had lived in my heart and told its story. Thank you. Thank you. Much admiration, respect, love even.

Here is that paragraph:

     A liar and a thief, poor kid, thought the Hi-Lo manager, and not very clever at either. No way was this little kid seventeen. Twelve, tops. The Hi-Lo manager himself was forty-four years old, bald, and pink, with a head dented like the cans in his store and an ex-wife he still loved, who still loved him, though she had remarried and had a baby. When the baby grew up, he thought, she’d divorce her husband, the fake husband, the shadow husband, and remarry him. It was the only thing that kept him in this town, where she lived; it was the only thing that kept him on this earth. She’d been his first and only girlfriend. If I’m not married when I’m forty, he’d told himself at twenty-seven, before he’d met her, I’ll kill myself. As it turned out, he wasn’t married at forty but he had been. Some days he wondered if he were breaking a vow with himself. At the Hi-Lo he wore a short-sleeve shirt and a red knot necktie and an engraved name tag that said VAL.

Those few hundred words tell a life story; many life stories. Every detail Elizabeth McCracken chooses to expose to the light seems like a whispered piece of gossip that would end up in a tabloid after the fellow kidnapped his ex and held her in his basement. It speaks to his delusion, it speaks to his sorrow, it speaks to the piece of soul in each of us that mourns the loss of love, opportunity, might have been, might have gone, and hangs on to any rationale for those failures of self and spirit. How many of us have not loved again, or loved as fully as we might because we carry the delusion of a lost love that should be, will be, could be, is, somehow even though it is not and never will be?

That’s an immutable, incontrovertible, universal truth and experience and Elizabeth McCracken captures it. That is her genius. This book (and all of her work) is filled with just this sort of insight and near-psychic grasp of the lives we all lead, day to day.

She is a literary alchemist, distilling the experiences of our lives into melodies of truth, told with great rhythm and beauty, resulting for the reader in the euphoria of recognition of ourselves; “Yes, I have felt that, that is what I am feeling, THANK YOU for telling our stories.”

Yes, thank you Elizabeth McCracken for telling our stories, your stories, with such grace, painting those places where we all unite with that intangible, untouchable, unknowable else with such divinity. Thank you fur turning your own soul inside out and putting it on the page, time and again, so that we might all benefit – not just from your writing, but from your knowing.

Dear friends, do yourself a favor, read this book. You will be unable to resist then reading Elizabeth McCracken’s backlist, and, following her on Twitter where she has one of the most amusing and fascinating feeds.

Goodnight and bless you my dears. Hug someone, please.

I bought Thunderstruck & Other Stories at my favorite independent bookstore, THE CURIOUS IGUANA (click HERE) and SO SHOULD YOU!

 

 

READING: BITTER EDEN by Tatamkhulu Afrika

Bitter EdenBitter Eden is not an easy book to read. That is, I realize, a difficult start to an essay meant to encourage you to give this book its chance to touch your heart. But, it is my truth, however difficult and not easy that may be, as this novel was the truth of Tatamkhulu Afrika’s life.

Now, I had never heard of Tatamkhulu Afrika when this book was brought to my attention; here is his bio, from the publisher’s website [you can CLICK HERE to visit the USMacmillan booksite for Bitter Eden]:

Tatamkhulu Afrika was born in Egypt in 1920 of an Arab father and a Turkish mother. He was brought to South Africa in 1923, orphaned, and raised by Christian foster parents. He served in World War II in the North African Campaign, and was a POW for three years in Italy and Germany. At the age of seventeen he published a novel in Great Britain entitled Broken Earth, but did not write again for fifty years. Bitter Eden was first published when he was eighty years old. He died in December 2002.

This is where I ought to offer a synopsis of the novel. Ought to. But, how? Do I share the surface action? Narrator Tom (Tatamkhulu) is a heteronormative WWII POW who finds  himself stalked by Douglas, a man harshly judged for his feminine characteristics, with whom he becomes close, until a typically macho fellow, Danny, becomes his prison mate. How Tom survives the dangers and challenges of his journey through the exclusively male energy and company of POW camps is a startlingly prescient apologue for the state of male interaction in modern times in ways that sucker punched and gut kicked me.

Many reviewers have remarked on the lyrical and poetic nature of Afrika’s prose. Indeed. But, not easy. The syntax is winding, unfamiliar, its sentence structure and rhythms are unexpected and require careful attention, a willingness to slow down and go back and consider what was meant, what was hidden, what has actually happened behind and beneath and before and within the convolutions of phrasing, to translate the coded language and behaviors specific to the rarefied situations in which the characters are living.

Which is perfect. The characters, too, must make an effort to adjust to this new world into which they have been forced. They discover new parts of themselves, and must somehow integrate those, or not.

For me, like politics, all art is personal. This particular story struck raw nerves on many levels; issues of presumptive heterosexuality and the ways in which those who are not conventionally gender-appropriate are judged and bullied, and, most of all, the challenge of acknowledging and making fit an unexpected love and attraction, one that does not fit easily into the assumptions one has about one’s self, nor the assumptions the world has made about you.

I have loved seemingly-heterosexual-identified men who loved me in return, who were tortured by that love, who — in some cases, assumed it had to have a physical element and were freaked out and ruined by that attraction, and, also, in other cases, those who fought so hard against any element of physical attraction, they felt the need to attack me — physically in some cases, with slander and whispered imprecations in others. In the end, it was those who were certain of their primary physical attraction to the opposite gender who were comfortable having sex with men, because they knew who they were and felt “approved” ultimately by social norms, while, on the other hand, it was those men uncertain of themselves who had internalized cultural homophobic beliefs, who were freaked out at the prospect of physical intimacy with another man.

Such is society. We see now, again and again, those who are most homophobic who justify it and rationalize it by citing the most ridiculous tenets and outrageous lies about homosexuality; to them, every gay person is a sinner, criminal, pedophile, etc, and even in the face of endless evidence that their homophobia is unjustified, the continue to crow and bark and accuse and hate.

And fear.

Bitter Eden was not, I suspect, meant to serve as such an allegory for the dangers of repressed feelings and imprisonment in the constricted, confined worlds  we make. It was, I suspect, the love story Mr. Afrika had lived with his whole life and never been able to tell, or, to recover from. Because he dug to the core of that, told the truth of that, this novel speaks with the searing voice of love possessed, love lost, love acid etched onto the soul forever changing the landscape of the life.

And so, as I said at the start, it is difficult.  Bitter Edens poetry of the perplexity of the dichotomy of passion and deprivation will speak to that part of the reader’s heart where love and loss and memory and sorrow meet. Brilliantly, honestly done.

But, not easy.

I ordered my copy of Bitter Eden at my favorite, local, independent bookseller; THE CURIOUS IGUANA. Click here for their website and visit them (or your local independent bookseller) to have satisfied all of your literary desires. You know the damage repressing your desires will do!

READING: Walter Kirn’s “BLOOD WILL OUT”

Before you read what I have to say about Walter Kirn’s “BLOOD WILL OUT” – you ought to CLICK HERE ON THIS LINK to a New York Times interview with Kirn. By Kirn. Genius.

BloodWillOut_Cover.indd

Click on book pic for link to Norton Publishing and book details.

The blood-splash of a cover graphic and its subtitle; The True Story of a Murder, A Mystery, and A Masquerade, promises that Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out is going to be a true-crime tale, and, while it is on the surface about the duping of Kirn by a con-man who called himself (among other aliases) Clark Rockefeller, a man the blurbs compare to Ripley and Gatsby, in fact, the real story is a bildungsroman about a culture of lost souls gone mad, addicted to the idea of ambition and accomplishment while unable to escape the inertia of entitlement.

The real mystery of the story is what has been learned?

Kirn’s prose is captivatingly stylish, provocative, confessional. The book is quick, a one-sitting sort of night out with a gifted raconteur.  He’s been places we will never get to go, a balls-to-the-wall, live on the edge, daring and defiant, loaded pistol in the glove compartment, Ritalin dissolved in Dr Pepper kind of guy. And he tells his truth —  his introspective, irony-soaked, been-there-done-that, literary cowboy truth — careful not to spare himself from his brand of eviscerating Zeitgeistian insight. Listen:

I lied on occasion, chiefly about sex. I could be two-faced around authority figures, kissing up to them while resenting them. At times I relished speaking caustically. And what I regarded as my trusting nature was, upon introspection, a kind of sloth. Instead of patiently working to get to know people, I’d decided that they were who I wanted them to be and discard them when they proved otherwise. This cycle of disappointment happened often. That it hadn’t come close to happening with Clark — that he never diverged from my fantasies about him — should have been a sign.

And later, Kirn refers to his own persona creating gambit:

“Being myself” at Princeton involved some guesswork, but eventually I settled on a persona. I bought a black thrift store raincoat and wore it everywhere, rarely taking my hands out of my pockets except when I had a chance to startle someone by whipping out my silver Zippo and lighting his cigarette with its oily flame. I wrote and helped direct a trio of imitation Beckett plays whose characters stood at strange angles to one another as they spoke their stiff, emphatic lines, which weren’t to be confused with natural speech because there is no such thing as natural speech, not in the theater and certainly not in life, the most artificial form of theater because it denies being theater at all. These were maxims I took from books by Frenchmen. The duty of the artist, I read somewhere, probably while I was smoking hash, which is when books about the artist’s duty most appealed to me, is to show that artifice is all. That’s why I wore my raincoat on clear days.

And he goes on, at some beautiful length, speaking of sex and image and paradigms lost and truth claims as opposed to truth and the deconstruction of self — which is the real subject of this memoir which uses a crime-story as scaffolding. It has been compared to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but Blood – while brilliantly shaped – was all about subterfuge and Capote’s spin; he was author as grifter,  re-shaping narrative and treating fact and truth as nagging details, entirely disposable if they got in the way of his beautiful deception.  Kirn, on the other hand, is picking away at the scabs of mendacity and flim-flam, investigating his willingness to be beguiled.

In the process, he entrances the reader. And he makes no promises that the truth has been or is being told.

We all understand that you can’t predict the future, but getting to know an old friend, however perversely, through his murder trial, reveals a truth less commonly acknowledged : you can’t predict the past. It can change at any time. … When fresh information discredits past perceptions, the underlying memories remain but they no longer hold their old positions; you’re left to draw a new map with displaced landmarks. You thought you were found but you realize that you were lost, and someday you may discover that you’re lost now.

That is a paragraph worthy of Joan Didion — there can be no higher praise — and answers the question posed earlier, “What have we learned?” That, perhaps, no matter what we think we have learned, there is more there than we see, or, seeing more somewhere along the way will alter what we saw before, that time and reality and truth are plastic things.

Blood Will Out is a thought-provoking, deeply felt, timely book about spin and the duplicity of self, the ways we all indulge in pretending to be who we imagine we are, and in allowing others their own delusions and deceptions – that we might be allowed our own.

Read it. Why not buy your copy at your local independent bookseller, as I did. My favorite place in Frederick, Maryland other than the comfort of my own bedroom/batcave, The Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE], a local, independent bookseller and friendly place to hang and meet people with an acceptable level of delusion and deception.

 

READING: “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?” by Kenneth M. Walsh

Wasnt-Tomorrow-WonderfulI’ve never actually met bloggist  Kenneth M. Walsh, but I have long checked in with him every morning at Kenneth in the (212) [you should as well, CLICK HERE] and now, with the publication of his memoir, Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful, I feel as if we are best friends.  How did this happen? Let me explain.

It isn’t only that he has ties to my hometown of Frederick, Maryland, or that his brother works in journalism here, or that another brother has authored books on grammar and usage to which I frequently refer, or that Kenneth is gay and roughly in my age cohort, or that he’s attractive both physically and mentally, with the kind of sensibility and humor I enjoy, or that he had courage and spine and balls enough to live a New York life I always wanted but never got to; no, it’s not just any or even all of those thats.

What that is it, then?

This that.

Once upon a time I was a youngster who knew I was not like all the others. I felt alone. Isolated. I found solace in my aunt, and in the interests we shared, interests in which she encouraged me. I found my voice in theatre, mostly musical theatre, and when I couldn’t be someone else on stage, I lost myself in reading. My aunt introduced me to Dorothy Parker and Helene Hanff and Jane and Paul Bowles, and soon enough I found Joan Didion and Renata Adler and Fran Lebowitz. I kept journals, full of story ideas and tragi-emo-diary tales and – before I even knew what they were – my own personal essays. I discovered my forebears and betters like Montaigne and Sarton and Mencken and Benchley and Rorem and . . . you get the picture. I became an inveterate devourer of essays and worshipper of those with the ability to pithily sum-up life experiences – particularly those who’d employ a gift for the apothegmatic turn of phrase – in a few thousand words, shaped like fables: beginnings, middles, ends, moral.

Mr. Walsh is a pro at just that. He has stories, funny stories, well told, and the details and colors lavished throughout and within are both apt and “aha” – as in, “Oh holy shit, yes! I remember that!” Listen to little Kenny as he heads to a movie theatre where he is hoping to be abducted by a serial killer (Yes, you read that right.);

My stomach was in knots as we drove to the cinema in my stepdad’s brand-new black Malibu Classic. The anticipation was nearly unbearable, I was becoming light-headed from my mother’s cigarette smoke and the overbearing smell of Gary’s Wild Country cologne. Avon began selling his favorite scent in bottles shaped like chess-pieces that year — Mom bought him the whole thirty-two-piece set — and it seemed my stepfather had splashed on an entire rook that night.

That paragraph tells you everything you need to know about a particular family in a specific place during a distinct era; the Malibu Classic, the cigarette smoke, the Avon chess-piece bottles. Perfect. Walsh encapsulates many other eras and experiences with equal finesse and insight, taking us with him on his journey from small(ish) town boy to Manhattan-ite, child to adult,aspiring  Buffy & Jody wanna-be to author and editor in New York City.

Walsh has the gift of capturing the passing zeitgeist with the tossing-off of one perfect cultural reference — be it Buffy and Jody from Family Affair (for me it would have been The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, but, that’s me) or Toni Tenille (I’m a Karen Carpenter guy) or who was cuter on Beverly Hills 90210‘s first incarnation, Dylan or Brandon (Walsh says, “Brandon, obviously,” but I am fonder of Dylan because I saw his dick on Oz and it seems just the right size whereas Brandon is famous for having one of the hugest cocks in Hollywood and I just am not a fan of such – uhm – largesse. I prefer a boyfriend dick.), or Shaun Cassidy (speaking of huge dicks, he and his brother David) or porn-star Mike Henson (with whom he lived and who was the star of the first porn video I ever saw) or Patty Hearst (I, too, collected Hearst kidnapping clippings until my mother insisted I throw them away) and . . . well, Walsh is a pop-culture treasure-trove, a trait I love, almost as much as I love being friends with someone who is happy to be naughty when called for, sassy, and able to make me laugh. A lot.

The culture has changed and we don’t anymore gossip with neighbors over the picket fence, or have those leisurely, meandering phone chats. We no longer have time to explore. We are busy. We spin. Not just with activity, but we spin our images. We become our social media profile, all of us the curators of our public personas as well as the information to which we expose ourselves, choosing from here and there that to which we attend, that which we post and re-post and borrow and morph and those we choose to spin and read the info for us. We are closer to and know more about people we have never met than we likely do about people we see all the time. We each live in our own imaginary, arranged world and we choose who we invite in.

Each morning, I invite Mr. Walsh. I am interested in the things about which he spins, and his spin is just my style. So, this memoir – which is really less memoir and more an arrangement of revealing personal essays that give a window not just into Mr. Walsh’s life, but, too, the world in which we all have been living during his lifetime – was, for me, like a friend sharing a few drinks and dinner and moving from acquaintance/friend status to near BFF.

Even if your life – unlike mine — has not been strangely similar to Mr. Walsh’s (wow – that syntax would drive Kenneth and both his copy editor brothers to distraction) in your social anxiety disorder, your sharp tongue juxtaposed with an “I weep at commercials” sensibility, fear, a pre-pubescent preference for middle-aged female friends, your memories of that private-parts-tingly-bits feeling when, as a ten year old, one got “butterflies in my stomach whenever the elastic band on the other boys’ Fruit of the Loom briefs became exposed when we were horsing around on the playground,” and your desire to live in a world the borders of which were Studio 54 as guarded by its hot doormen and populated by Liza Minnelli and Halston and Warhol (oh, my!) — you will still love Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful.

Why? Because, like Parker and Montaigne and Rorem before him, Walsh takes episodes from the life he has had the courage to live, that world he has gone out into and explored in ways most of us have not, and he has made them universal. He’s found the commonality of human experience in his days and his nights and his loves and his hates, and he has made them into amusing prose. And he has given them to us as a gift. The gift of friendship.

So, no, I’ve never met Kenneth M. Walsh, but, even so, he’s one of my BFF’s. You should have a glass of wine or a meal with him too. Buy Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful today at your local, independent bookstore. My pals at The Curious Iguana in Frederick [click here] ordered mine for me, and Mr. Walsh put a photo of me buying it on Kenneth in the (212) [CLICK HERE] which made me feel all butterflies tingly and famous. Nice guy. Of course, he wouldn’t be one of my imaginary BFF’s were he not.

Waste no more time, get yours and sidle up to your virtual picket fence and chat with Kenneth in whatever area code you happen to inhabit.

READING: Justin St Germain’s “SON OF A GUN”

Son of a GunJustin St. Germain’s memoir, Son of a Gun, tells a terrible story of lives lived on the margins; there where the promise of the so-called American dream has become a bludgeon with which to control the huddled masses, toiling away, terrified to admit that there is no chance – first or last – that they will ever escape the hovel and the struggle that is their daily existence because the odds are stacked against them, the game is rigged, the fix is in. No one dares to say that, because the powers that be have cleverly convinced the cogs in the wheel that complaining about being left to deal with just the grit, grease and shit by-products of the system is un-patriotic, weak, somehow a thing that only those “others” do; those others who don’t want to work, don’t have the courage to try, can’t make it.  Real Americans – gun-toting, flag waving, freedom-loving, red-white-and-well, not blue – bloods – just keep tugging those bootstraps, waiting for that win.

Justin St. Germain’s mother failed to win, again and again. She lost everything to one after another bad choice, bad roll, bad economy, bad luck, and finally – to one final last man, she lost her life. Shot repeatedly in a trailer in the middle of the wild, wild west, leaving behind a troubled writer of a son [CLICK HERE FOR ST. GERMAIN’S WEBSITE] who has been asking why ever since. Son of a Gun is the latest version of his quest to make sense of this senselessness that is modern America.

The book has been widely and luxuriously praised, winning the 2013 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award in Non-fiction. With blurbs by Colm Toibin and Jesmyn Ward (among others) and glowing reviews from NPR [click here], Guardian/Observer UK [click here], and The New York Times [click here], I was eager to read this.

I wish I hadn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, this book is beautifully written. St. Germain is brilliant in his evocation of loss, paranoia, and almost Didion-esque in his razor-sharp limning of the landscape of depraved deprivation and dolorous despairing, the pointless, persistent pursuit of the next golden opportunity – all of which are revealed to be neither precious nor opportune – that is the milieu in which he (and all of us) was brewed to become this person he is today; somehow, someone who still manages to hope despite all the evidence the universe provides against hoping, all the proof that disappointment is – for most of us – our daily bread, and that optimists are little-less delusional than and just as addicted as crack-whores.

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Justin St. Germain from his website

St. Germain makes that point in an understated way with gorgeous – but tragic – imagery, and syntax and structure and technique that would do any MFA program proud, yet, still, somehow, the writing is also deeply felt and truthful, and unsparing as well. He indicts himself as much as anyone else. All of which made me incredibly sad. Listen to this paragraph about his Mother:

I lived there with my mother for a year when I was fourteen. My brother was gone and no man was living with us, and I would sneak out at night and drink and get high and not even try to hide any of it from her, daring her to stop me. I’d hear her crying at night in her room, and I knew it was partly because she felt so alone, and partly because she thought she had lost me to the town she’d grown by then to hate, the town that had already turned her only brother into a hopeless case. One night I saw her through the window, standing in the backyard among the knee-high weeds, holding a hamper of clothes she’d just taken off the line, bathed in white and blue from the Chevron sign across the street, staring blankly into the distance, and she stood there motionless for so long I wondered if I was dreaming or hallucinating, if she was a ghost. I don’t fully believe that memory, but it’s the image I remember most vividly from that time.

That is a deceptively simple passage in which there are approximately twelve million emotions. Just the use of punctuation, the rhythm, the pacing, are enough to tell the story – many stories. But that it is confession, too, how much he knew, how well he saw, and what he leaves unspoken – the sort of pain it cost him to see her in such pain, and what that must have taught him. “…the Chevron sign across the street…” and “I don’t fully believe that memory…” – my god, simply glorious.

But, you see what I mean? It is glorious and evocative and killer, and it leaves one as depleted and defeated as if one had been confined to the trailer in the middle of the desert, gasping for air and longing for escape. That’s wonderful writing – which is why I gave it five stars – but horrible therapy for me (and a country) already depressed and starting to confess just how hopeless this struggle seems.

So, okay, buy the book. He deserves to be bought. But, read it with care, and balance it with something light and frothy and – or, fuck it, do what I did and just get dead drunk when it’s over, all the while hoping all my financial and emotional and man mistakes don’t have the same sort of ending . . . because I guess what made me the saddest is that while I know, sure as shit, I’m not going to have a happy-American-dream sort of ending, I still – dammit it to fucking hell – am brainwashed into hoping it might be a little better than Justin St. Germain’s mom got.

And that, my friends, is the NEW American dream.

As ALMOST always, this book was purchased at Frederick’s independent book store, THE CURIOUS IGUANA. CLICK HERE to support it. Or, if you live somewhere other than Frederick, Maryland area – support your OWN local, independent bookseller.

I OBJECT(ify)! 2014-3-19 #JeffAquilon and #BruceWeber photos and HOMOPHOBE W.VA. TEACHERS

Jeff Aquilon

Your not so intrepid and often insipid social critic’s daily dose of OBJECTING and OBJECTIFYING, that which inspires the urge for all kinds of spankings.

From JustJared this morning via Towelroad; No, Tommy Hilfiger, David Beckham most certainly is NOT the underwear model of the century. That title was LONG AGO claimed and remains the sole property of Jeff Aquilon. EVERYONE KNOWS THAT. And Kenneth Walsh in KENNETH IN THE (212) [CLICK HERE & PRETTY PICTURES TOO] explained this only about two weeks ago. JEESH PEOPLE – PAY ATTENTION! Jeff (I call anyone I’ve wanked to by their first names – it seems rude, otherwise) was another of the trade-tricks  Gay-icon-models picked-up discovered by Bruce Weber (here’s Mr. Weber’s website – in case you’re feeling like you’re pretty enough to live – Mr. Weber’s photos will remind you that YOU ARE NOT), who should be deified for the way he has managed to mainstream the homo-fication of ad and pop-mag editorial-photo-content in the past few decades. Or, maybe, crucified for the increase in eating disorders in gay men and the objectification and de-furring of men? Abercrombie & Fitch – need I say more? Whatever. He’s made ephebophilia into a billion dollar industry.

Speaking of KENNETH WALSH and KENNETH IN THE (212) – yesterday as I was recovering from my mysterious and vicious but short-lived virus, I spent the day huddled under electric blankets, sipping mint tea, and reading memoirs, one of which was Mr. Walsh’s WASN’T TOMORROW WONCharlie Iguana Kenneth WalshDERFUL? My dears at my local, independent bookstore – THE CURIOUS IGUANA (click here) coincidentally Tweeted me about not having seen me for a few days, wondering if I’d left the country. I explained that I was feeling a bit ill. They offered to make an emergency book delivery. I answered that I was reading Mr. Walsh. AND DON’T YOU KNOW THAT SWEET MAN TWEETED ME, ” Feel better!” If I hadn’t already been loving his book, that would have done it. But I was loving it, I did love it, and I’m going to do a full post about it very soon. IN THE MEANTIME, why don’t YOU get your copy RIGHT NOW from your local independent bookstore?

NEWS ITEM: Click here for the Fucking homophobic teacher – DAVID FOGGIN OF PARKERSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA – who posts his fucking homophobic ranting on his fucking Facebook page. I hope he gets fired. I hope he never finds another teaching job. I hope they take any children he may have of his own away from him.

DICK CLICK HERE: Oh BuzzFeed, a penis museum? Uhm let’s say I wanted to become a phallogist; would I get – you know – life experience credits for having done so much – uhm – independent study?

Enough. Pretty picture time.

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By Claudio Bindella. Click photo to go to his site.

March 19 2014

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Click photo for source

Click photo for source

And finally, some Bruce Weber, from here: GUSMEN: Other Sports Require One Ball by Bruce Weber

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