Reading: The Currency of Connections

Dear Ones, I have read nine books since last I book-blogged and so must, I think, put aside petty concerns — like my health — and catch up a bit.

It’s July 4th as I write and my plans today are to do what I like best to do on holidays: Sit quietly at home while others run about in a must-have-fun-be-conventionally-happy holiday frenzy. People often try to get me out more, as they did with my aunt, Sissie, before me. She, too, preferred and cherished the opportunity for solitude and quiet on holidays because for her — an eternally single person who spent much of her time taking care of others, not unlike my life — a holiday meant she was able to be alone, with no one needing anything. People (me included) thought that was sad and awful, that she ought, like everyone else, be with family or friends or DOING SOMETHING on a holiday. In later years, I got it, how she said, “I’m happy,” when being pressed to agree to go or do or be other than left alone, at peace. Now, how often I find myself saying, in a delivery exactly like Kathy Bates in Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; “I am happy, goddammit!” (Please watch the below clip beginning around 5:15 for Bates’s brilliant delivery.)

And, I am. I have a life which has allowed me opportunity to read nine books in as many days. How much happier can a person get? I’ll tell you how much happier; each of these books came to me or my attention through a special and meaningful connection, each of which I will share.

I’m only going to write about eight of the books; the other was an advance reader copy and I will talk about it closer to release date. So, here we are, going. I will TRY to be brief.

The Gypsy Moth Summer, Julia Fierro, Hardcover, 400pp, June 2017, St. Martin’s Press

Connection: Twitter. Julia Fierro and I have over one hundred people in common, and though I don’t know who followed who first (I suspect it was me following her) I started chatting with her and like all the best authors/publishing folk, she responded with kindness.

Touted as a summer read, this generations-spanning, family saga of a novel is a triumphant combination of compulsively page-turning plotting; artful, flowing prose; in-depth and engaging, desperately human, breathing, characters with audible heartbeats; and an examination of issues like race, class, and the cost and transformative (sometimes, deforming) power of love.

Julia Fierro juggles the many treasures and pleasures of this novel masterfully, speaking in close-third through a number of narrators’ points of view, giving individual voice to each, carefully illuminating truths bit by bit, page by page. For reasons into which I won’t go so as not to spoil, I fell most in love with Veronica and Dom. No doubt you will find your own friends herein and parts of yourself — parts both light and dark. Be warned, though, there are no easy happy endings here.

The Mighty Franks: A Family Memoir, Hardcover, 320pp, May 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Connection: I read about this memoir in which a young boy is taken under the wing of an eccentric aunt who adores him and wishes he were her own. Not unlike my life. I was hooked and knew I had to read it.

A complicated, convoluted and near incestuous family structure produced the author of this memoir, Michael Frank, whose extraordinarily close relationship to his aunt, Hank, a combination of Auntie Mame and Mommy Dearest, is the subject around which the narrative is built. Compellingly told, the dissolution from mutual admiration society to broken-hearted (and, perhaps, in Hank’s case, mentally ill) combatants, is beautifully written and thus easy to read but emotionally eviscerating and thus difficult to take.

The Free, Willy Vlautin, Paperback, 320pp, February 2014, Harper Perennial

Connection: This was brought to my attention by Garth Greenwell, another Twitter friend who I began stalking upon publication of What Belongs To You, the best novel of 2016, and, truly, one of the finest of all time in any genre but particularly important as a classic LGBTQ work. If you read this blog even a little, you know how I adore Garth, so, when he said he’d “thought of me” when reading this novel, there was nothing for me to do but immediately get hold of it.

It is clear from the gorgeous rhythms of the structure of this novel that its author, Willy Vlautin, is a singer, songwriter. And, too, its heartbreaking rendering of the struggles, burdens, and tragedies in the half-hopeless lives of its three damaged protagonists, lets you know that his musical genre is country.

Leroy Kervin, wounded veteran driven to further destroy himself, imprisoning his consciousness in a terrifying dream world while his body deteriorates in a hospital bed; Freddie McCall, night shift caretaker when Leroy committed his act of desperation, has lost his wife and kids, and despite working multiple jobs is about to lose his house and what little hope he has left; and Pauline Hawkins, a nurse caring for Leroy, who also must cope with a mentally ill and abusive father, and who can’t seem to stop picking up strays, are the three characters whose lives are woven in and out of a narrative near Greek in its darkness and its litany of disappointments.

Still, inside the simple and beautiful sentences, there is a breath of hope, of continued belief in something, somewhere. It is undefined, what that belief is, where such faith comes from; it remains unnamed and unspoken but is there, beneath the surface of the words, inside the story, this intangible quality of keeping on against all odds. I laughed, I wept, and I recognized myself — and, I think, all of us in this deceptively quiet novel. Let it move you.

June, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Paperback, 432pp, February 2017, Broadway Books

Connection: Twitter, again! The lovely Cary Barbor messaged and asked if I’d be interested in a few books she had and I, being me (as someone said: It’s not hoarding if it’s books!) said of course. And so she sent me those books, and a few more for good measure. This was one.

I really loved this. Don’t start it unless you have time to finish it because — cliché though this is — you won’t want to put it down.

When Cassie Danvers’s mourning of her grandmother, June, in the decrepit, crumbling home she’s been left with is interrupted by the news that she has been left millions as the sole heir of movie idol, Jack Montgomery, begins a search into the past in an effort to discover who June and Jack really were, and who Cassie and the other possible heirs — including Jack’s film star daughter, Tate Montgomery, who arrives with entourage in tow — might be in relation to them.

The story skips back and forth between June’s youth and meeting with Jack Montgomery, and Cassie’s present, and both stories are rip-roaring, exciting, tell me! tell me! mysteries combined with love stories and hate stories and gossip and secrets and surprises.

Two books in one, either of which would have been enough, but tied together with a ribbon of good-writing and clever plotting, it’s a home run, firework explosion of a summer read.

Point Blank (Alex Rider #2), Anthony Horowitz, Hardcover, 215pp, April 2002, Philomel Books

Connection: See my recent write-ups about Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and Stormbreaker (Alex Rider #1) here.

Young Adult adventure. Second in the series. Fast. Fun. Unbelievable. And every once in a while I need that sort of superhero kind of blast of “it-will-all-turn-out-in-the-end” frivolity. Unfortunately, this one ends with a cliffhanger. Now, seems I’ll have to read #3.

One Of Us Is Lying, Karen M. McManus, Hardcover, 361pp, May 2017, Delacorte Press

Connection: Cary Barbor again! This being one of the extras she threw in, and for which I’m very grateful.

I love a good YA novel. A brain, a beauty, a criminal, an athlete, and an outcast are thrown together in detention. One dies. The remaining four are suspects. I saw all the twists coming but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this fast moving romp. Good fun, even though someone died.

The Age Of Innocence, Edith Wharton

Connection: Twitter. Again.

I’ve had a number of Wharton books for years but have never actually read them. So, when a few of the Twitterati who happen to be in the publishing industry and happen to be folks whose intellect and talent I much admire began discussing which Wharton was the best, it prompted me to dig out The Age of Innocence.

I hardly think there is anything to be said about this 1921 Pulitzer Prize Winner that hasn’t already been said by far wiser and erudite folk than am I. What makes it classic is how, despite its very specific setting in 1870s New York upper crust society, its exploration of the human condition and emotions still applies today. In fact, its depiction of the idiocies of social standards and prejudices, it is as relevant today as it ever was.

The love triangle is portrayed with such subtlety, wit, and depth of emotion bubbling but rarely boiling out into the open, one is taken along with the characters, yearning for all three of them, somehow, to get to a happy ending.

And, I suppose, in a way, they do. But at a cost.

In any event, what a pleasure to drown in the words, the glorious, evocative abundance of lovely language at a languid, careful pace. My only cavil, it felt to me, here and there, that there were commas missing where they ought to be. But, if you’ve read me, you know I am a near violent-over-user of commas. I blame it on years as an actor and director, where a breath, a pause, the pace was all important to communicating the tale being told.

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman, Paperback, 337pp, May 2015, Washington Square Press

Connection: Twitter. This one was sent to me by one of my dearest Twitter pals, Pamela, with whom I’ve actually spent marvelous, real world time. It was also recommended to me ages ago by my dear Marlene, from The Curious Iguana, my local indie bookstore (i.e. second home – click here to go there).

Let me begin by saying more than one person has suggested I am not unlike the title character of this novel; a curmudgeonly older gentleman who has been dealt a couple of raw hands by life, affects a gruff and grumbly mien, but underneath, is a softie.

I’m okay with that.

There is nothing in the least bit surprising in this book. A querulous coot’s wife dies of cancer, after which, said irascible grouch decides to kill himself, having lost the only person who saw the love and light inside him. He is repeatedly interrupted in his attempts and begrudgingly becomes engaged in the lives of a broad swath of others as, back and forth in time goes the narrative explaining how Ove became Ove.

I laughed. I cried. I read it in one sitting. I loved this book.

And not just because there may be one or two MINOR similarities between Ove and myself.

**********

Well, there it is, eight books in under 2000 words. No one is more surprised than I am that I managed that. And this aged curmudgeon is so grateful for the connections that brought these books to me. I may not have a lot of money, my health may be shaky, but what I’ve a fortune in, the currency most valuable to me? You people, my connections, this embarrassment of riches in the currency of good, fine, wonderful, funny, embracing, forgiving, seeing, loving people.

And, before I get more maudlin or exceed 2000 words, here I am, going.

Love and Light, dear ones.

 

READING: 2016: The Comfort of Words

I was one of those book-loving children, oft told, “Why don’t you go outside and play?” Well, perhaps because outside in the real world I felt, at best, tolerated, while,  inside books, I celebrated with friends who saw life like I did and, more important, their stories promised the possibility of belonging and thriving with people of my own kind, a comfort I hadn’t yet found in my day-to-day life where my earliest memories have to do with hiding who I was and how I felt.

While much is different, right now, it seems too little has changed. And 2016 has left me once more burrowing into the comfort of books, resisting the world outside my little bubble wherein I can keep believing the world is made of Love and Light, and all people are, at the core and essence, good.

I read 125 books in 2016 and whether or not it was this cursed year itself distracting me, or perhaps my advancing age and weakening faculties, only a few made lasting impressions. As I go through the list there are many about which I recall very little, except disappointment. In 2017 I intend to be more careful about taking recommendations because often the books about which others are abuzz do so little for me as to infuriate me into believing I’ve been misled by shills or ad placements masquerading as journalism. But, I’m not going to talk about those books, this is about the books I loved — or, if I didn’t exactly love them, I was moved, influenced, impressed.

What Belongs To YouBOOK OF THE YEAR: WHAT BELONGS TO YOU, by Garth Greenwell  There is nothing more to say. I started talking about it while reading the first pages in January and I haven’t stopped since. And many esteemed critics, publications, and remarkably literate people of exquisite taste have also loved it and included it on awards and year-end lists. Click here for my original post about it from February 1, 2016.

AND OTHER LOVES . . .  I’m not going to do a top ten or anything like that. This is a casual chat between friends about the books I remember most and most fondly from the past twelve months.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, by Elizabeth Strout was a study in emotional precision. In a not very long book, Ms. Strout told many stories about the ways in which love can fail. And survive. With not one wasted word or space.

WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, by Idra Novey was one of my very favorite novels of this year and NPR agreed, including it in the Best of 2016. It’s quite a bit more than that. Shaped of incongruously and impossibly beautiful sentences begging to be read out loud, this novel is layer upon layer of truth and effect and reality and fantasy and a literary banquet of pathos and ecstasy quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. I read it twice in a row, which I rarely do, because there is so much there there.

Click here for my original write-ups about My Name Is Lucy Barton and Ways To Disappear.

There was a longish dry-spell for me from February to May during which the books I read were not — for the most part — awful, but they didn’t get me really excited. Then came May and:

Tuesday Nights in 1980TUESDAY NIGHTS IN 1980, by Molly Prentiss which was engaging and intriguing and filled with well-drawn and fascinating characters, and a compelling existential conundrum: What makes us who we are? If we lose the gifts and quirks we think define us, what’s left of us? And it was hella fun too, set in the art world of the 80s with kick-ass detail and capture of the era. This, too, like What Belongs To You, and Ways To Disappear, is a debut novel, and, like those, it is written with an assurance and command promising even more greatness in the future. I can’t wait for the second releases from these three. Click here for my original write-up about Tuesday Nights In 1980.

Next, during the summer, I fell in love with:

THEY MAY NOT MEAN TO, BUT THEY DO, by Cathleen Schine which was the first of her writing I had read and I loved that it had an octogenarian main character and explored the guilts of parenting, childhood, and family so well and with such tenderness, truth, and humor. And, too, the summer brought me:

THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS, by Jane Hamilton which was another grand and touching exploration of family dynamics.

Click here for my brief write-ups about They May Not Mean To, But They Do and The Excellent Lombards.

And, finally, my summer was made fantastic by the release of:

A GREAT RECKONING, by Louise Penny which is the twelfth in the Inspector Gamache series. Armand Gamache and his creator, Louise Penny, are both people I would like to be. This series is so much more than a chain of mysteries; it is the embodiment of a world, a community, a magical place difficult to find because it is largely unmapped and out of reach of wi-fi — a dream world full of marvelous people who are quirky and brilliant and angry and flawed and human and friends. I feel they are my friends, my people. Click here for my original blog about A Great Reckoning.

September brought me a wonderful new (to me) writer recommended by Ann Patchett, who happened to have her own September release. But first:

dream-lifeTHE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS: STORIES, by Patrick Ryan which was a glorious collection, unconnected but connected. I went on and on about this book in my original blog — Click here for my write-up about Mr. Ryan’s The Dream Life Of Astronauts — but do you really need me to tell you read this when Ann Patchett has already told you to? Get busy. Then, if somehow you haven’t, it’s time for:

COMMONWEALTH, by Ann Patchett herself. This is another exploration of complicated family dynamics and angers and loves and losses, like so many of the books by which I was moved this year, and it is unsurprisingly brilliant. Ms. Patchett’s deceptively simple style is incredibly complicated and complex, with an eye for detail and the telling moment un-equalled today. Click here for my original blog about Commonwealth.

Now, the thing. My next much-moved-by books were read in November and since the election I have been unable to focus enough to blog about books. I have been reading like a mad-man. Which, in many ways on many levels with many different meanings, I am. I am near crazy from the results. Flabbergasted and disbelieving, still in denial. I am angry unto furious as in enraged that the election was stolen and, far worse, that sixty-two million people in this country are bigoted, misogynist, homophobic, Islamaphobic, racist, mocking the differently-abled, okay with sexual predators, cretins. I don’t want to hear any excuses about how not everyone who voted for him is all those things — for me, that is bullshit. He clearly exemplified all of those horrifying traits, and/or appealed to those who did and if they voted for him, they are at some level guilty of those things. It is horrifying to me. HORRIFYING.

So, as I finish this up, there are no book-blog-entries to which to refer you. I am reading to numb myself, like I did as a child, and to convince myself that a world and a people exist where I am welcome and honored. So, here we go:

underground-railroadTHE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, by Colson Whitehead which was almost as brilliant as everyone said it was HOWEVER, I remained bitter and didn’t read it for quite a while because I thought Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You should have made the short list and won, hands down. I still do, but Mr. Whitehead’s work was definitely salient and topical and relevant and well-done.

mothersTHE MOTHERS, by Brit Bennett made me laugh and cry and rage and lust and all the things a grand novel ought to do. I read it in that rarer and rarer “what’s going to happen next” mode, I had to keep going. I found its construction fascinating and the characters compelling and I liked it much more than I had expected to — because it had been so hyped, I feared it was another pet of the insiders club. Maybe it was, but this one deserved it. And, then, from Twitter-folk I found –

phantom-limbsPHANTOM LIMBS, by Paula Garner which was another very promising debut novel by a writer I heard about from Twitter (although we do not follow each other) and I am glad I believed and took a chance on this one. Again, a plot in which one of the main characters has lost a close family member — little surprise that this interests and touches me — but there is nothing maudlin or cloying or manipulative in this, and Ms. Garner captures the voices of teens quite brilliantly.

And so ends my 2016 wrap-up. I know there are a few days left, but I am not going to finish another new-to-me book. I am busy re-reading Helene Hanff and Garth Greenwell.

I re-read Ms. Hanff every year because she takes me back to my past, when my dear aunt and I shared books, passed them back and forth, talked about them, and marveled. My aunt believed I would move to New York and be a Broadway star or a writer or someone who somehow managed to live at the Algonquin. She’d wanted to be Edna St. Vincent Millay and I wanted to be Dorothy Parker-slash-Mary Martin. What was most amazing about the two of us, the love we shared, was that for each other — to each other — we already lived at the Algonquin and were our own versions of Millay-Parker-Martin.

I would very much like to have such a love again. I never have come close. I doubt I will.

So, there’s another part of me which makes soul-connections, usually brief, intense, naked and raw and passionate in an entirely different way, and that part of me seemed to be known and understood and written about from the center of truth by Garth Greenwell in What Belongs To You. It spoke to my soul. And it was a fantastic piece of literature with transparent and glorious technique.

So, I’m hanging on by a thread by blanketing myself in Hanff and Greenwell, memories of what was (and wasn’t) and trying to believe believe believe that maybe, some day, I can feel connected again and welcome in the world — despite the sixty-two million assholes who wish me gone, consider me unequal, and voted to abrogate my rights.

I’m being told by a few the equivalent of “Go outside and play” but I am not so inclined. Not right now. So, here I am, NOT going. And, although I want to say Happy New Year, I dasn’t tempt fate.

 

 

 

Reading: Man, Booker, WTF?

Fair warning and full disclosure, I am in a full-blown, full-on mean reds episode, feeling attacked, unloved, unseen, alone, abandoned, belittled, beknighted, befuddled, certain I am going to end my life on the streets, mortified and still unable to face how easy I am to walk away from, turn away from, and so, I am especially self-pitying right now, furious about what I’ve lost, what’s been taken, and what I’ve fucked up, both my pair of sneakers are falling apart, my bullet-shake-maker blew up, I haven’t lost enough weight quickly enough on this diet, I think I’m leaving Twitter, I don’t have any house/pet-sitting bookings in October/November which means I don’t have any private time, and I am just fucking exhausted being me and feeling sad about how being me exhausts other people and so … you’ve been warned. When in this mood and further disappointed by books — which are my solace and my strength, I can get pretty testy.

I live a smallish life, an increasing amount of my happiness has to do with my interaction with the books I read. Literature means a great deal to me. I revere authors and follow them the way others iconize Brangelina and sports figures. So, each year, the announcement of the Man Booker fiction longlist and National Book Award nominees are big events for me. I am excited when there are books on those lists I’ve already read, even more, when there are books there I have loved and championed.

When the opposite is true — when there are books which were buzzy-industry-pushed and heralded by insidery-critic-y-MFA-emperor’s-new-clothes-crowd that I found to be less than great, even annoyingly un-great (if you want to go Tr*mpian about it), I am flummoxed and, in some cases, pissed off. I find it, what’s the word? DEPLORABLE.

So, this year has been something of a drag. First of all, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, [I WROTE ABOUT IT HERE] should win both Booker and NBA. It was at least on the longlist for NBA, but Continue reading

Reading: Not Little Lives by Garth Greenwell and Paul Lisicky

In this post I talk about two books of great beauty — chase cut to, here: Buy (because you’ll want to write in them and read them over and over, refer to them, revel in them, live and love in their pages) Paul Lisicky’s THE NARROW DOOR and Garth Greenwell’s WHAT BELONGS TO YOU. Now, I can return to talking about my life, which these two books — like great literature does — made me reconsider, contemplate, review, and think about deeply, my perspective having been changed, my journey illuminated by the truths told by Mxs Lisicky and Greenwell. Seriously, stop wasting time reading me – GO GET THESE BOOKS!

P.S. NOON FEBRUARY 1, 2016 – AT TIME OF POSTING – READER ADVISORY: Listen, friends, this is OVER 3000 words, and since many of you have subtly and kindly told me already that my posts are too long, let me help you out — I have EDITED OUT huge swaths of quotes from both books – reviewing them is beside the point; they are both beautiful and demand to be read, repeatedly – so no need to go any further – JUST GO GET THESE BOOKS AND READ THEM. I’m heading to the gym to look for some fun with one of my imaginary boyfriends, whose real names I don’t know, but who I have now begun to call – alternately, M and Mitko, thanks to Mr. Lisicky and Mr. Greenwell. Goodbye, dear ones.

P.P.S. 12:30 – Here’s the thing, in one sentence, when writers create from the truth of their souls and allow that Light and Love to flow onto the page, it doesn’t matter whether the shape of their experiences or the labels they’ve been given match your own — it is their TRUTHS that move us, that connect with our own most deeply-felt and deeply-lived experiences, and make us say, “Yes, they too have lived as have I, and loved, and learned, and lost and this is a truthful telling of that story, that truth.” Okay, I’m finished. Really.

Lisicky, Paul

Paul Lisicky

Greenwell, Garth

Garth Greenwell

It was January 22 when I read Paul Lisicky’s memoir, The Narrow Door, and January 23 when I read Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You. I have been trying to write about both ever since. That’s a lie. I knew I couldn’t write about them. Both of these cris de coeur opened in me memories like wounds, tearing away the scar-tissue of long years of melancholic acquiescence to a life of less-than, exposing gaping lesions, bruises and lacerations, slashes and gashes I thought I had treated and healed, bringing to light just how many and how damaging were the lies I had told to myself and others, the evasions and fictions in which I was still — far too often and too adeptly — living.

So, I apologize. I apologize for making this about me. But, blame those responsible: Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You are more than reads. By now, reviewers everywhere have rapturized about how these works of a lifetime have been beautifully composed from the raw materials of truth, hard-won loves, devastating losses and heartaches, then chiseled and polished to a lustrous brilliance. You should search for and read those adulatory reviews by practitioners far more skilled at the art of literary criticism and analysis than am I. This, on another hand (or, more likely, foot — in mouth) is a personal testimonial about the impact a book can have on a human being.

In the shape of a book review. Okay: Go.

Narrow DoorTHE NARROW DOOR: A Memoir of Friendship, Paul Lisicky, Paperback, 192 pages, January 2016, Graywolf Press  Mr. Lisicky wrote Lawnboy, a novel lush with longing and the search for identity I much loved. Now, he invites us into his heart as it grows and breaks and mends and mourns through two relationships, two loves. Mr. Lisicky explores the boundaries of romance and self and what effort is required when people are evolved enough to recognize that “Love” doesn’t necessarily fit into the confines allowed and defined by the culture in which we live; sometimes love is smaller, lower-case l, and sometimes Love is larger, capital L, than we have words and rules and understanding for, and we must —  as individuals, couples, trios, menages of many sizes, communities, evolving societies — learn to make space, make sense, make okay the shapes our loves and our lives take.

Mr. Lisicky writes with trenchant insight about love, about having a partner with greater earning power, about being an artist, toiling at one’s art and having to make a living in other ways, about making sense by finding peace in the lack of discernible pattern in life, love, energy, the cosmos. Listen:

How tempting it is to do the alchemical now. To turn darkness into light, bread into flesh, tin into gold, wine into blood. It’s what the narrative wants of us, at least this part of the narrative. It wants to comfort, not that we should necessarily link comfort to weakness. Couldn’t there be some rigor to comfort? I’d like to think the story could give it that, to give the hurting in us strength and power. So we will not leave the page without reserving a pasture for darkness, inscrutability. If we don’t acknowledge that pasture, if we don’t respect the secret creature that might be grazing there, those creatures may turn on us.”

That is poetry. That is truth, hard-won, discovered by living through the age, the youth, during which one thinks one knows it all, the innocent era of believing one will find the perfect, ever-after love, will have it all, and then the maturation process of the slogs and slips and sweats and sadnesses of insecurities, suffering the losses and the less-than-loves and enduring the experience of watching the everything you thought you had turning into all the things you know you’ve lost, growing up and old enough to recognize that those things about which you were most certain were the doorways to the worst of your mistakes, and the worst of your mistakes were the doorways to the most important of your lessons, and where you are now is only a step in where you are going. Mr. Lisicky writes from the perch of wisdom grounded in knowing that there is much knowing in the un-knowing that comes after good-byes.

It is not a spoiler to say The Narrow Door is framed around the deaths of a friend and a relationship. Mr. Lisicky shares details of the intricate, delicate, sometimes agonizingly difficult, sometimes one-brain/one-heart euphoric relationship he shared with fellow writer, Denise. Her death derails him, as deaths do, and it is shortly after this when his marriage with the husband he calls M, disintegrates.

One of the marvelous things about this memoir is Mr. Lisicky’s use of emotional resonances as organizing framework. Rather than a linear narration of “this happened then that happened in this order at this time”, The Narrow Door is palimpsest, a layering and a tessellation of memories, events, conversations, a conflation of emotional impacts and experiences, the sum of which equal more than eulogy. While elegy is always an element in the complexity of a life — because love and living, after all, both require again and again choosing one thing over another, and what one doesn’t choose is lost — it is what comes after loss, the mystery of enduring and abiding, the choice (there’s that word again) to keep going, to remain open and alive and continue wondering, that defines a life. Mr. Lisicky travels in beautiful, evocative prose through choices he has made, continues to make, and interpreting the wider world through his personal, private lens, this being the story of how he has maintained purchase in a world where reality can too often be calamitous, catastrophic, and wretched. Listen, here as he describes how he maintains foundation of self while working a soul-sucking job in order to make a living:

It helps to set the alarm for five every morning, pull out my legal pad, prop the legal pad on my bent legs, and write in bed for an hour. Sometimes I can’t even read the sloppy penmanship when I get home that night. It looks like the penmanship of someone with a personality disorder. Still, the act of writing give me permission to do that eight-hour day. It is a ritual, an act of stillness, of saying here I am to myself. No, I haven’t joined the ranks of former artists, though my coworkers might not exactly be aware of that.

How blessed are we that Mr. Lisicky never surrendered to the disappointments of the artist’s life along the way, sacrificing his writing for the world of mortgages and notes.  Perhaps I am even more moved by this memoir because, in many ways, I did surrender. Too, there are other of Mr. Lisicky’s experiences that resonate with me. We are roughly the same age and we grew up in an era where it was still the norm to hide parts of who we were even from those to whom we were closest. He was not, at first, out as a gay man to Denise, and I too, being of that generation, had some very dear friends with whom I was not open and out early on. And, like Mr. Lisicky (and, I suspect, most people who have lived five or six decades) I have loved badly and been badly loved by people I believed I could forever trust, people whose leavings and betrayals left within me empty spaces where once that believing lived. It is a constant battle not to let those spaces fill with bitterness and anger, which means, sometimes, I must allow sorrow to seep in, filling the empty, otherwise hate might rush in.

That struggle, that task, is what growing older and aging is for me. In The Narrow Door, Mr. Lisicky penetratingly addresses such questions and, rather than leaving us with formulaic, pat answers, he introduces us to better ways to ask the questions of “why” and “how did I get here” and “what might moving on look like” and he does it all with leapings through time, magnificences of prose, and intensities of truth and heart that will make you gasp, laugh, weep, recognize, and rejoice.

Simply brilliant. And he admires Jane Bowles. And is friends with Elizabeth McCracken, either of which, let alone BOTH, would have been enough for me.

Now, from memoir to debut novel, another book that touched me so deeply I don’t think I can do it any more justice than I just did Mr. Lisicky, but I have claimed I am a book blogger, so, well, I will do my best.

What Belongs To YouWHAT BELONGS TO YOU, Garth Greenwell, Hadcover, 194 pages, January 2016, Farrar, Straus and Giroux  I don’t know how to begin. I have been trying for days to come up with an opening sentence for this appreciation, struggling to find an angle, an introduction, some way to communicate some glimmer of the poetries, perplexities, and perfections of this novel. I can’t. So, let Mr. Greenwell’s opening two sentences work their mesmeric power on you, as they did on me. Listen:

That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning in places like the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.

Confronted with the hypnotic repetitions and rhythms of those sentences, their complications of emotion and intricacy of language, I immediately stopped, went back and read them again. After which, I stopped, again, got myself a pencil and sticky-arrow-notes, and started scribbling in the margins, taking to Twitter to declare my euphoric, ecstatic reveling in such glorious writing.

In those two sentences Mr. Greenwell tells us so much about the narrator. While he names the object of his desire, his betrayer, Mitko B., he does not name himself, not here, nor in the remaining pages of the story. The repetition of should, warning, desire, and part, along with the rhythms of element, coterminous, ubiquitous, inescapable, tell us this is a man who listens and lives in layers. We are in his head and his heart and his groin as his inner monologue tells us: “I should have known, so I should have desired less; but that desire that should have lessened with the warning of the initial betrayal, is the desire that compels the un-named me to this place; this desire which is conflated with, inseparable from the warning, the warning being a large part of the compulsion.”

There is such connectivity in the choice of words he repeats, and in their repetition a compelling, compulsive, complexity and hastening, the experience is building for us as it happens to him in the way a musical composition repeats phrases and themes. All of which is brilliant enough for an initial two sentences, but then Mr. Greenwell adds a layer of juxtapositioning, limning encounter and betrayal, minor and greater, bathrooms and National Palace of Culture, the introduction of his laser-like application of dichotomy of language, emotion, and experience that continues throughout this novel, symphonically communicating the contrapuntal and atonal spiritual and emotional disunion in the heart of our un-named narrator.

I worried when reading the spellbinding first few sentences that this would be another of those novels that begins with such promise and ultimately disappoint. For naught. From my stunned, breathless appreciation of its opening, to my first sobbing on page 34, to my recognition of myself and my experiences over and over again in these pages, to the brilliant loss of self and initial disconnect described on page 73, to the crippling ever-after scarring of first unrequited love so eloquently painted on pages 90 and 91, to the painful final discoveries of truth on page 190-191 that left me — again — in tears of recognition and sorrow and appreciation for the effort and genius of this work, yes, from beginning to end, this was a work of magical, once-in-a-generation numbing, ensorcelling accomplishment by a virtuoso of literature. You can see, looking at my copy of What Belongs To You, it was a transforming experience throughout:

Greenwell arrows Greenwell page 34 Greenwell page 37

Now, as I warned you, this is less review and more about me. Here goes. Much has been made of late about naming — about finding — the Great Gay Novel, and despite the ever-contracting world of publishing, there seems an expansion of opportunities for writers of what is often called diversity. I’ll spare you my cosmologo-pollyanna-ish-angry-loving-hippie-esque-nirvana-utopia-dreamworld take on why all this labeling is ultimately so harmful and reductive, but, if we must choose a Great Gay Novel, let it please be this one.

When I was young, it was Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story and John Rechy’s City of Night  that told me stories about other gay men, some other gay men. Those books were not available to me in my local bookstore and although I was from the time I began first grade called out as sissy and queer and fag and every other derogatory term for boys who loved other boys, I was still not publicly declared and so I had to go to some trouble, take some risks to find and get and hide these books, and I read them furtively. During the years of my circumspect, secretive non-living of my truth, at thirteen and fourteen, I was falling in what felt like love to me with someone who was, I now believe, not much gay. Had the world been different — not a prison of labels and naming — we’d have been boyfriends for a while, broken up, moved on. As it was, he, B, was just the first in a line of scars I still bear which included when I was seventeen and eighteen, C, and then in my twenties and thirties, A — who ruined me forever for love, and later, a different sort of tragic and deep connection that didn’t fit anywhere in the world in which we lived, the weight of which caused implosion, confusion, and untethered fury for both of us, and, well, these men all loved me after a fashion, and I loved them, but in each case their desire for me was less than their desire that no one — including themselves, really — know they loved me, and, worse, my acquiescence to and acceptance of that condition.

It was a kind of love particular to many (certainly not all, but many) gay lives.

Which is why, I understand, we still need gay novels. Because, had I not had Mxs. White and Rechy, when growing up I would have felt even more alone and abandoned and afraid than I did. And yet it is that fear, that alone, which is the why, I hope you understand, I wish we didn’t need gay novels. I want that world, my imagined cosmologo-pollyanna-ish-angry-loving-hippie-esque-nirvana-utopia-dreamworld, where we are all first and foremost HUMANS. We are not our gender or our attractions or our ages or shapes or incomes or anything other than our SOULS. I want that world so that there never have to be young people who feel “OTHER” because of who they find themselves attracted to.

But, yes, things are getting better. Heartening that both Mr. Greenwell and Mr. Lisicky discuss Walt Whitman’s poetry in their books. There have always been gay writers, but it is only now in an age where freedom to love who we love burgeons that the reclamation has begun, and reclamation and clarification of the past, a revisionist inclusion-ism as it were, is an important step on the way to my utopian “we are all equal souls” world.  So, important to know now, Whitman belongs to the pantheon of writers whose experience was informed by their attractions to people of the same gender; as we declare our presence in the present, we also claim our past. Evolution of culture and society is about re-examining, re-defining, finding new ways to interpret old truths that shed old skins, undo old lies. Greenwell’s narrator says of Whitman:

I understood his desire to be naked before the world, his madness, as he says, to be in contact with it. I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

What sentences! What thoughts! What truths for so many (I suspect, for when something resonates with me — such is my ego — I assume there is a world of people for whom it also resonates)! However, Mr. Greenwell frequently works at the pitch of poetry. This, when the narrator is told by a sad, withdrawn Mitko:

…I want to live a normal life. I was silent for a moment, torn between a terrible sadness and my desire for escape. And then, watching his [Mitko’s] face, I don’t want to be one of your clients, I said. He turned to me in surprise, saying But you aren’t a client, you’re a friend, but I waved this objection away. I like you too much, I said, clumsily but with candor, it isn’t good for me to like you so much.

I have said those words. Who hasn’t said those words? Who hasn’t loved more than was good for them? That isn’t a gay novel or a queer novel or a diverse novel, that is a human story, a poem told about a soul with whom we can all identify. This is a love story and a Bildungsroman and a weighing of where the culture is now in contrast to where it was when the narrator’s father disowned him and an embrace of the blatantly, celebratory erotic urge. It is, in short, a life. Not little. Despite its less than two-hundred pages this is a very large life, and a great novel – gay novel, yes, but human novel, certainly.

Oh, my friends, you few who have made it all the way here, past three-thousand words (I’m so sorry) there is so much more I could say about both these books. I have already edited from this post huge swaths of quotes, because, truly, just please read them, these elegant explorations of sensitive, perceptive souls wandering and wondering through precipitous emotional landscapes, blessed and tormented and transformed by the vicissitudes of relationships and mutations of love.

Note to Mr. Lisicky and Mr. Greenwell: I am sorry I couldn’t better communicate how much I loved these books and how deeply touched I was by the universality of the emotions within each of them, the ways in which they echoed my own personal experience. I felt, sometimes, as though you’d both read my journals. Much thanks, gratitude, and love for your work, your sharing of your own Lights and Love. Thank you, thank you, thank you.