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: Edan Lepucki’s “Woman No.17”

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki, Hardcover, 320pp, May 2017, Hogarth Press

I loved Edan Lepucki’s California, and when I wrote about it I spoke of how much I looked forward to this fascinating writer’s next novel with the fervent wish its setting not be dystopian. Ha! Little did I know by the time Edan Lepucki published again we would be hurtling toward a non-fictional dystopia brought about by a treasonous, narcissistic, sociopathic, dementia-riddled, pathological liar who stole an election with the help of Russia.

But, here we are. And without babbling on at too great a length in sociological theorizing, I think we arrived at this seventh circle because we live in fear that who we are is not enough, not who we ought to be, and because of that fear we have become performance artists, pretending to be some idealized “I”  — or, at least, a version of that “I” we wear like armor, a disguise we hope will allow us to survive, to meet with the approval of the culture in which we live. And, the effort to maintain the facade of projected-self is so all-consuming, we often dissolve into despair and desperate behavior, having lost the line between truth and our invented-self, an exhaustion of being which leaves us vulnerable to the manipulations of others to whom we look as mirrors, to find ourselves in how they perceive us.

Oscar Wilde said it best; “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki has created a riveting and revealing portrait of the ways in which masks, personas, disguises, and the distancing effect of communication via social media affect modern life and personal reality.

The story is told by two alternating first person narrators; Lady, whose birth name was Pearl, and Esther, who is now called S. That the Lady sections are titled Lady, and the S sections titled Esther, indicates which of the two is more in touch with the anima beneath the persona, but both characters are remarkably aware of their own delusions — which in my opinion is where Edan Lepucki’s astounding ability to create real humans with whom one identifies and sympathizes, flaws and all, shines — because while Lady and S are both at turning points of identity confusion in their lives and behave in ways some reviewers and readers have described as repugnant, I found them to be like me, like everyone I’ve ever known, acting and behaving in the ways they do because they are compelled by the desire to find and be the “I” behind the masks, questioning the rules and expectations of cultural forces: social norms, parents, friends, and the roles we are expected to play based on gender, age, income, race, and class.

Lady, having recently decided to take a break from her marriage to Karl, hires S from a Craigslist ad to nanny for her toddler son, Devin. Too, Seth, Lady’s eighteen year old son from her first marriage to the long disappeared Marco, lives with her; while he has no diagnosed disability, Seth has spoken only one word in his lifetime and communicates via sign language, gestures, iPad, and phone texts. Both Lady and S had difficult mothers, and while Lady chose to deal with hers by disconnecting and cutting her out of her life, S’s reason for pursuing the nanny position has to do with her having decided to do a performance/art project and become her mother, who, early in her life, worked as a nanny; a project meant both to reveal to S who her mother was and who she, herself is. While S is plundering her mother’s past, Lady has pillaged Seth’s silence for an article she wrote which led to a contract for a book about his life. As the two pursue their goals, their lives and lies and loves become intertwined in a complex chiaroscuro portrait of parent and child relationships, the isolation of the self, and the ways in which we are so busy defining our own identities and healing our own wounds, we may well miss the ways in which we affect — or damage — others.

We don’t mean to disappoint, but life is never what we think it will be. Lady, remembering a long ago night when she thought things were turning around for her, that she was on the path to a happy end, says this:

     It hurts because nothing turned out the way I thought it would. You think you know how a story begins, or how it’s going to turn out, especially when it’s your own. You don’t.

There, there. So there.

Exactly. There is an economy of prose there with a near poetic rhythm, with that final paragraph, its four words sculpted into a metrical structure approximating a heartbeat, absolutely perfect; somehow both precise and ambiguous, like life, like the story, like the behavior of all the characters, like being human.

There are so many gorgeous, lyrical moments in Edan Lepucki’s work, I hesitate to begin quoting. But, in addition, Edan Lepucki also excels at dry wit and humor, with piquant observations of a world gone mad, populated by people trying to love and/or struggling to understand why they have not been better loved. I’m going on too long and I apologize. One more quote — this is the opening of the novel, by the end of which paragraph I was totally hooked, in love with the words, with the style. Listen:

It was summer. The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt. The freeways shimmered, any hotter and they might crack, might explode, and the poor cars would confetti into the air. People were complaining, they were moving slowly. They were swarming the beaches like tiny bugs upon the backs of dead animals. I preferred to stay home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer. The air conditioner was broken. I had taken to sitting in the living room with the curtains drawn, my body edged with sweat like frosting on a cake, daring to see how hot it could get. I ate salad for dinner every night and had almost checked myself and the boys into a hotel. I’d refrained because of the babysitter search. What would applicants think if I requested they meet me poolside at the Roosevelt?

How beautiful and evocative is that? The highest compliment I can pay any author is that their work reminds me of Joan Didion and her trenchant, dissecting, laser-sharp prose; each word a perfect complement to the whole. Every word of that paragraph reveals something about its speaker, Lady, and after just those few sentences we know her, we’ve a feel of who she is; we’ve met her just as surely as if we’d been in a room with her.

This is the brilliance of Edan Lepucki and the beauty of a story which explores the meaning of family, art, truth, and the cost of our delusions and denials and desires.

Read it. Five stars. And, like I said after California, I can’t wait until her next novel. This time, though, I have no requests. I place myself wholly in Edan Lepucki’s hands, knowing that whatever she gives us will be a worthwhile and wonderful gift. She is one of my instant-always reads, and I bet she’ll be one of yours, too.