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: 4 Books and no Sticky Fingers*, that’s FINAL.

Today I’m putting personal babbling on hold (I hear your sigh of relief) and visiting with A Christmas Party, by Georgette Heyer; The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter; Heather, the Totality, by Matthew Weiner; and boy oh boy did I love this one, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee.

A Christmas Party, Georgette Heyer, First published 1941, this edition October 2016, Paperback, 400pp, Sourcebook Landmark

I kept expecting to love this one more than I did. British. Cozy-ish. 1940. All my stuff. Still, despite some cleverly arch dialogue and skillful construction, I knew early on whodunnit and it felt far longer than it needed to be. Repetitive. Dare I say, dull? I did dare, didn’t I?

The End We Start From, Megan Hunter, Hardcover, 144pp, November 2017, Grove Atlantic

London is flooded by rising waters; a pregnant woman and her husband depart to find safe shelter with his parents, soon the baby, Z, is born, its grandparents dead, its father departed, and the woman and Z make their way in a new dystopian reality. Honestly, this variety of near-future horror tale is now too much for me because with every passing day it becomes not only more possible this sort of thing could happen because of ignorance, denial, and neglect, but, in fact, increasingly likely. And since it seems I might have to live it later, I don’t want to imagine it now. All of which is unfair to a book carefully constructed, a mosaic of short, near poetic sentences and paragraphs creating a lucid whole of a story. Although, this is less a novel and more a short story, but, as with labeling genres, who is to say what qualifies as novel, novella, short story, outline? It’s a quick read with some beautiful passages and a horrifying picture of an all-too-likely future.

Heather, The Totality, Matthew Weiner, Hardcover, 144pp, November 2017, Little, Brown and Company

So, coincidentally, this is the second novel in a row under 200 pages I have read. Again, for me, it was more a short story than a novel, its canvas small, confined to a few characters who struck me as contrived rather than fully developed humans. Too, at this particular point in the history of the world, I’m not much inclined to want a story in which privileged cis-white men get away with stuff, no matter how badly they feel about it. So, it’s a no for me.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee, Hardcover, 513pp, June 2017, Katherine Tegen Books

Marketed as Young Adult, but should be marketed as ridiculously good fun, rip-roaring romantic adventure, crazy-interesting characters, thrillingly erotic, compellingly plotted, queer-history cool, stay-up-call-in-sick-until-you-finish delight of a damn good book.

Did you get that I loved it?

Young gentleman Henry Montague, Monty, and his best friend since childhood, Percy, who happens to be biracial and as gorgeous as Monty and on whom Monty happens to have a long, unrequited crush, take off on a tour typical for the privileged 18th century English lad; only this tour is meant to tame Monty, his domineering and abusive father threatening his eldest son with disinheritance if he doesn’t keep away from boys and settle down into staid, responsible adulthood. To that end, younger sister Felicity is also sent along on the tour. Trouble, as it so often does, ensues. Stolen treasures. Pirates. Naked men and women. Drinking. Drugging. Villains. Heroes. Mysteries. And, somehow, anachronistic as it may (or may not) be, issues like homophobia, sexism, racism, power-hungry and evil white-men in charge/politicians, individual identity, child abuse, and a host of other topical and relevant subjects are dealt with in serious but humorous and entertaining, involving, riveting ways.

This is like a series on the WB as imagined by Ryan Murphy and filtered through the sensibilities of Oscar Wilde and starring those couple of teen-male-idols you’ve always wanted to see get-it-on with each other, accompanied by that teen-female-popstar you’ve always wanted released from the bonds of sexism and come into her super-hero self. There is a sequel on the way, and Felicity, the younger sister, who is abso-fabu-mazing, is the narrator of that one. BRING IT!

*No Sticky Fingers note. I have decided NOT to write about the Jann Wenner biography, Sticky Fingers, because of all the reasons I cited here: 

I have not lived a perfect life, not even a perfect week, hell, not even a perfect last twenty-four hours — in fact, the last twenty-four have been fairly fucked up, but I don’t want to read about Jann Wenner because I find what he did with his privilege to be despicable. Further, that he gave such a shit about this bio having included some info on with whom he slept says to me he hasn’t changed much. Further, that anyone gives a fuck about who he slept with rather than what he did NOT do for the world with the opportunities he had, makes me sort of furious — at this point in history, in a country (and world) being decimated by what is (I hope) the last gasp of privileged-heterosexual-male lust-for-power driven evil, I don’t really want to read about one of the shitheads who kept the evil going, gave it a platform, and did near fuck-all to achieve equality. So, that.

And, before my chest pain turns into a full-blown coronary, here I am, going.

ZEITBITES: Dec 7, 2017: But I Digress

Since I’m on Twitter-break in what is probably a hopeless attempt to preserve a portion of my sanity (And, too, that of my friends and family who have to bear the ranting and weeping in which my timeline and news-feed cause me to indulge.) I have nowhere to deposit (and I chose the word carefully, make of it what you will) my pithy and pissy and loving and snarky observations. So, I’m going to put them here in this compendium of random-ness.

6:30a.m. I could happily go the rest of my life without ever again seeing a TV featuring — let alone hearing sound from — MSNBC, CNN, FOXNEWS, and all the rest who have built networks and fortunes by serving agendas, chasing ad dollars and ratings, and playing to specific focus groups — drumming up drama so they’ve something to report, and leaving out those “news” items inconvenient to their agendas. It’s fucking exhausting and endless trying to sift through all the noise and repetition and arched eyebrow, Simon Legree’d sneers and “get this” and gotcha bullshit and it is bad for everyone who has any interest in actual truth.

9a.m. I am about to read the New York Times choices for best books of 2017 (while carefully avoiding all other sections and headlines). I have already perused a few “best” lists and thought, “What the fuck?” But, isn’t that always the way? And once again those lists reek of their compilers’ MFA-cult-think; out of the tens of thousands of books published, miraculously a couple of the same ones make nearly every list, and often those are the books about which I thought, “What’s all this noise about? This is NOT that great.” I won’t be naming those books because that’s a level of ugly to which I don’t want to tunnel; even the worst books were toiled over by a human being with a heart and soul, and I have no interest in making anyone feel bad. (Today, anyway. Well, there is that one guy on Grindr who made me feel really shitty about myself and ugly and such, so, him I could make feel bad if I hadn’t blocked his ass. And other parts of him as well.)

9:15a.m. And another problem with “best” lists? For me, like crack. When they include books about which I’ve not heard and the write-up is compelling, I’m helpless. I’m blithely (and with great gratitude) depleting A’s generous present of gift card from my local indie bookstore, Curious Iguana [click HERE], messaging and requesting books from these lists. I am a full-on sucker for book reviews — like they was books. (If reading that sentence didn’t bring to mind one of Rose’s rant lines from Gypsy, and at least three different women you’ve seen play the role, not like you and I will be sharing a cocktail. Or coffee. Or be Twitter pals.) Oh, so, these are the books I’ve so far requested: Sunshine State: Essays, by Sarah Gerard, and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee.

9:20a.m.  And, as I feared, there on one NYTimes critic list of best is that book to which I was earlier referring about which there is much huzzah-ing which is something I Do. Not. Understand.

9:24a.m. Okay, I’d lose myself in this “best” list for the next few hours, but it’s Momma hair day. Today she is getting a permanent. Which means extra time in the hole-in-the-wall salon in the kkk-populated town where Momma insists on going to get her hair done. Weekly. By the same person who has done it for thirty years. Thirty years. Hair done. Once a week. I need to think about that some more. And then, when I have time, tell you about the magazine I stole from the salon last week and why I did so. (See THIEVERY NOTE below.)

12:55p.m. Finished hair day with Momma. She didn’t want to do any shopping today so I was spared excursions through Boscov’s or WalMart, and she wanted only a quick lunch so she could get back to Record Street Home for Movie Day. This surprised me. Momma usually skips Movie Day because, “Some of those women are so deaf, they turn it up too loud, I can’t understand it when it’s that loud.” Says the woman whose favorite word is, “What?” I asked if it was a musical, because, you know, I’m me, and she said, “No, no. It’s the one about flowers and nuns with that black actor. I’ve watched it many times. You know.” In fact, I did. Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. The film which marked the first time a black man won a competitive Oscar. So, for lunch, she wanted a hot dog and the only place you can get one is Burger King. Correction — WAS Burger King. As we discovered today, they have removed it from the menu. I don’t know how often you spend time with older people, but it has been my experience that when things change — as in a hot dog being removed from a menu — they do not take it well. (Hmm, I guess that makes me an older person, because the changes I’ve been experiencing lately don’t make me too happy either.) Momma eventually settled on the fish sandwich. She was some surprised it had lettuce and a pickle and onion as garnishment. When I asked why she said, “This is NOT how they make them at McDonald’s. A pickle. On fish.” Indeed.

1:15p.m. Well, I’m downtown. Dropped Momma off so she could spend the afternoon with other deaf women, Sidney Poitier, and a bunch of nuns. And since I am downtown, it’s only sensible I should stop by The Curious Iguana and pick up Sunshine State. I picked up The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue yesterday. I don’t enjoy sitting on the shelf waiting to be picked up, I feel sure books don’t either.

1:45p.m. Home. With my new book. Luckily I have the DVR set to record Days of Our Lives. Chandler Massey has returned to play a risen from the (pretend) dead Will Horton. He does not remember his husband, Sonny, who — thinking Will long dead — had fallen BACK in love with his first love, ex-baseball player, Paul, with whom he broke up years earlier because Paul wouldn’t risk his baseball career by coming out of the closet, but who Will — a reporter and married to Sonny at the time and with no idea Sonny had once been in love with Paul —

Christopher Sean as Paul

Chandler Massey as Will

— cheated on Sonny to sleep with Paul that he might get the exclusive on him being gay and out him thus cementing his reputation as a reporter; a move that nearly destroyed his marriage, causing Sonny to leave the country, during which time Will was (we thought) murdered by the NeckTie killer. Once Will was discovered to be alive, albeit with no memory of his life as Will, having been brainwashed by evil, crazy Susan into believing he was his mother’s now dead third or fourth or fifth husband who was, coincidentally Susan’s son whose death she blamed on Will’s mother which is why she wanted to steal Will from his real mother and convince him he was her, Susan’s, dead son. Anyway, Sonny has now called off the engagement to Paul, breaking his heart, because Sonny’s love for Will is just too great. Only, Will, still with no memory of being Will, doesn’t much care for Sonny, but does want to fuck the shit out of Paul, who came to the door dressed in only a towel yesterday and on whom Will made quite the move. Who wouldn’t —

—I have NEVER liked Sonny and I want Will and Paul to end up together because, well, LOOK AT THEM. Chandler Massey won a couple of Emmys before he left the show and he is really and truly amazing — which is really and truly NOT the case for most of the male actors on this show. He’s also ridiculously sexy.

Yeah. I watch it. On DVR. So I can fast forward. And, of course, rewind. And freeze-frame. I like to see just how method the actors are. So to speak.

After DOOL, I watched my DVR-ed Real Housewives of New Jersey. Sue me.

Surely you didn’t think I spent my days reading Proust and contemplating the meaning of all the layers of reality in order that I might solve the problems of the world, all the while performing good deeds and baking cookies and cobblers selflessly for others, did you? Cuz, I seriously don’t. I am basic. Basic as can be as often as can be, baby. Don’t even ASK what that means because you would be surprised (well, not you B.W., but the rest of you).

5:30p.m. For dinner tonight I am re-purposing Sunday’s Chicken and Dumplings by NOT adding dumplings, rather, adding kale and broth to make a new tasting soup/stew. We’ll have some bread, too. And there’s still cobbler. And ice cream. So, that.

8:30p.m. Dinner done. Jeopardy over. Alex Trebek still officious and annoying and flashing around that ridiculous French accent every chance he gets, flaunting his assumed superiority. Damn Jesuit schooling. I’m in my room. On my bed. Pecking away at this. After I hit publish, I’ll be diving into Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner, which I started this morning in lieu of going to the gym — I really needed not to get up at 5a.m. today — and it’s really short, and so far, really good and unique and I think I like it although it has an ominously jaded kind of tone, which doesn’t bode well for a happy ending. I could use a happy ending. We’ll see.


As promised, here is the story of the magazine I stole. Last week at the hair salon Momma and I visit each Thursday, I was looking through the magazines and there in Martha Stewart Living was a picture of one of the food editors next to his pie recipe and damn if it wasn’t a boy — now man — who many, many years ago I taught (briefy and I take no credit for his talent) to perform. He had one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard and I wrote a special role for him in a show I authored and designed. I stuck the magazine under my coat and snuck it out of the salon. Or, sneaked it. I took the damn thing.

And, why? If I had told them the story and asked they would have been more than happy to give me the magazine and they would have enjoyed the story with me. So, why did I do the shove it under the coat thing? Once, when I was in my early twenties, I stole food from a WaWa in New Haven when I didn’t have any money, had just moved there literally in the middle of the night, and as yet had no place to live. But, that’s about it. It may have more to do with me being afraid to ask for things I want from people — I live with the expectation of being always answered NO.

Why is that? Something else to think about. A reason to keep journalling, stay off Twitter, read more, think more, re-charge, spend time with me.

Yes. That. So, here I am, basic, and going.