Friday, July 24, 2020

THE MERCY SEAT, taut and tense and timely tale of the Wages of Sin...just not the sin the characters think


Grove Press
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: “One of the finest writers of her generation” (Brad Watson), and author of three previously acclaimed novels, Elizabeth H. Winthrop delivers a brave new book that will launch her distinguished career anew. An incisive, meticulously crafted portrait of race, racism, and injustice in the Jim Crow era South that is as intimate and tense as a stage drama, The Mercy Seat is a stunning account of one town’s foundering over a trauma in their midst.

On the eve of his execution, eighteen year old Willie Jones sits in his cell in New Iberia awaiting his end. Across the state, a truck driven by a convict and his keeper carries the executioner’s chair closer. On a nearby highway, Willie’s father Frank lugs a gravestone on the back of his fading, old mule. In his office the DA who prosecuted Willie reckons with his sentencing, while at their gas station at the crossroads outside of town, married couple Ora and Dale grapple with their grief and their secrets.

As various members of the township consider and reflect on what Willie’s execution means, an intricately layered and complex portrait of a Jim Crow era Southern community emerges. Moving from voice to voice, Winthrop elegantly brings to stark light the story of a town, its people, and its injustices. The Mercy Seat is a brutally incisive and tender novel from one of our most acute literary observers.


My Review
: The beautiful writing! The moving story! The unbearable whiteness of the novel's voices, however, don't lead to celebration.

There are many third-person cinematic, or subjective, points of view. That gives us a kaleidoscope view of a day in the life of a bog-standard racist Louisiana burg in the waning days of Jim Crow. The entire story, the trial for rape of a Black young man, his conviction and sentencing to death, and remand into local custody the night before his judicial murder, takes place before we join the proceedings.

I read the story with great reluctance after a bookish-social-media friend damn near blew her brains out warbling its virtues. I can honestly say, Kickass Katie, you've never steered me less wrong than with this wonderful, tight, dense tale of a day in the life of a dead man and those who killed him. The factual inspirations for the work, detailed in the Afterword, are so grim as to make me want to bury myself in something soft so as to absorb the blows the mere idea of them give my already-battered psyche.

But in fiction's no-less-brutal embrace, the violation doesn't stop: As I read this book, I was bashed and struck and shoved into realizing this is a similar, though not identical, set-up to the also nonfictonally inspired 1981 novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez. I'll assume that most people who read my blog are familiar with, at the least, the story of the incredibly wonderfully named Santiago (patron saint of Spain, country eternally "reconquering" itself from the Muslims) Nasar (as in Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt)'s murder at the hands of his ex-girlfriend and lover, Angela Vicario's, twin brothers. Both are stories of sex "crimes" that are, in fact, the crimes of women who love too freely for the comfort of the men around them. Who exactly asked them, I don't know; but they certainly receive a lot of cultural support for their rage and hate of the men who "defiled" the women in question. WHo were, let us note, both in love with the defilers....

Well, such was and is the lot of Woman in a world defined by and run by and for men. It revolts and disgusts me. It twists every act into something pointed and edged with noxious bigotry and unforgiving judgment. It demands lies to sustain itself, and the lies are to self and others in equally toxic and ruinous measure. Willie remembers his time with Grace as love; Grace, whose death was ruled a suicide, isn't there to tell us what she felt and no one, evidently, thought to ask. It is Grace's father who brings this nightmare into being. He, like the Vicario twins in García Márquez's story, decides that his daughter's sexual indiscretion must be punished, and raises the hue and cry against the "perpetrator" Willie. She must've been raped! No good white woman would open her legs to a Black man voluntarily!


And Grace, poor lamb, pays the ultimate price for her "crime" as she dies of a gunshot wound to the head. We're given no information about that, it is announced as a fait accompli, and no investigation or even questioning of it occurs. I question it. I suspect Grace's father, faced with a daughter who would defile herself by offering her body to a Black man (yes, yes, the N-Word is used throughout the book, but I am not so constituted as to be able to use it myself), couldn't live with her and couldn't allow her to live. He is the epitome of the man I loathe and despise the most: The zealot. He resorts to the foulest, most evil-souled means to enforce his will for the world onto all others. Never mind what they think, feel, want. He Knows Best and you, scum, exist to obey him.

So here is Willie, doomed by the State to die. We spend some time with Willie on this, his last day of life. But he's not a memorable character. He's a kid, a boy in love for the first time (never stated but feels so implicit that I assume it's true), and barely aware of life before and after his flare-up of primal passion. Memories come to him, simple things like frost and a brother's love; but in the end, they are nothing compared to the fact that Grace, the reason he existed so hard if so briefly, is dead. He ponders what a normal boy does:
...the stuff in the Bible he doesn’t believe, though he’s tried—he’s read the Bible, he’s prayed, he’s gone through all the Christian motions, hoping to believe. Wanting to believe. He figures it would make this whole thing easier if he did, but he can find no comfort in religion, in the book his mother lives by.
...{Willie} stays where he is, watching his white breath curl away and slowly mingle with the world’s cold air, watching himself breathe for the first time.
Try as he might, this guff makes no headway against the rushing river of regret that Grace is dead, Grace is dead, he killed her, Grace is dead. And so he, the victim of appalling and malevolent men's rage, does nothing to fight the horror of his impending judicial murder:
And when these visions come, it is all Willie can do not to beat his head against the concrete walls of his cell, his soul aching with regret; he ran away. He’d have never let it happen if he’d stayed.
Willie is not the first man to be killed by his regrets.

And the state whose judgment will kill him at midnight, served by the local District Attorney? What does the state have to say for itself? Nothing, really; the DA's participation in the judicial murder of a boy whose only crime was falling in love was not easy or uncomplicated.
If he’s read it once, he’s read it a thousand times, the warrant he chased after, sentencing Willie Jones to a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death, and the application and continuance of such current through the body of the said Willie Jones until said Willie Jones is dead.
He and his Massachusetts Yankee wife were set at odds by this execution's run-up, and on this day, they both are doing their best to be fully present with each other. They are not succeeding:
...he wonders which is worse, to be lynched or to be shocked to death in an electric chair. There was a time when he was sure there was difference, but now that he’s had a hand in it, he wonders if it really matters in the end what kind of justice it is—mob or legal—when the end result is death.
“I suppose I care for many things, but what I live for is my boy.” (spoken by the wife)
Each in their own way made a hell of this moment by living it again and again and each has left the other behind in search of meaning outside their pair bond. A wife and mother, a woman, thinks of her son as the center of her existence; her son's father demanded this boy be murdered by the state. The husband and father can't force himself to contemplate the reason he did this thing that so troubles himself and his wife. And they each remain unaware of the other's cause of turmoil, assigning it to things that make sense to them but, in all honesty, wouldn't to the other.

The ending is so wrenching, so extreme, so deeply fitting, that I can't bear to take away your unmediated reaction to it. Suffice to say that it, too, is based on fact. The parts invented to make the story work as fiction are pitch-perfect enhancements of the facts.

There are other stories told here, not at all lower in emotional resonance than the main one; but they are, of necessity, less urgent: A wife's long-brewing loathing of a once-loved husband; a man's reckoning with the universality of fatherhood; a father's wretchedness and loss and dignity; a religious man's struggles against demons his god has no way to defeat but whose reality is tragically evident; a gormless man-boy without his own place in the world whose effort to carve one has dire consequences. All weave a beautiful basket to carry the main story in; others could easily see them as the main story in and of themselves. I won't say they're wrong. I will say that, in light of the polyphonic choices made by the author, the many stories are well-chosen and work together to make a syncretic whole.

There has to be a bruise, or it's not an apple: What the hell is the DA's dying mother doing here? Nothing at all. She's used as somewhat mawkish window-dressing for a sentimental moment or two. The story's momentum and depth would not change were she to be cut entirely.

At long last, I'll get to the point: Go get this book, and I swear it won't be wasted time to read it.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE, collected stories of a neglected Chicago woman author

CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE: The Selected Stories of Bette Howland

A Public Space Books
$26.00 hardcover, available now


The Publisher Says: A Booklist Best New Book
A Best Book
A Chicago Public Library Best Book of 2019 so far

"Loving, lacerating sketches." --Harper's

"This story collection reinstates a long-overlooked artist of live-wire incisiveness, shredding wit, and improbable beauty." —Kirkus, starred review

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage
restores to the literary canon an extraordinarily gifted writer, who was recognized as a major talent before all but disappearing from public view for decades, until nearly the end of her life. Bette Howland herself was an outsider―an intellectual from a working-class neighborhood in Chicago; a divorcée and single mother, to the disapproval of her family; an artist chipped away at by poverty and perfection. Each of these facets plays a central role in her work. Mining her deepest emotions for her art, she chronicles the tension of her generation. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage introduces a new generation of readers to a wry, brilliant observer and a writer of great empathy and sly, joyous humor.

My Review:

As is my wont, I will use the time-honored and very efficient Bryce Method to view the stories as they come.

A Visit is about that one thing, "visit" having many levels of meaning here.
"Then the door swung open, the man stepped quickly down the planks, and I saw he wasn't as big as I had thought...he had the manner of a man with a badge on his chest. A lot of shirtfront, thrusting buttons."

Blue in Chicago
"The job was at Zenith Radio, where Sylvia herself used to work during the war years when my uncle Fred was in the service. ... {Cousin} Gary will have an executive position: fourteen thousand to start. A lot more than Fred makes as a printer."
A boatload of money in the 1960s! Now it's a middling monthly salary.

To the Country

Twenty-Sixth and California

Public Facilities

Golden Age

How We Got the Old Woman to Go


Power Failure

German Lessons

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Monday, July 6, 2020

THE FOUR, even though it's just three years old, is slightly outdated but still trenchant

THE FOUR: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google

$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The acclaimed NYU business professor's tour-de-force on the true nature of technology's titans, and what happens next in their struggle to dominate our lives.

Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are in an unprecedented race towards a $1 trillion valuation—and whoever gets there first will exert untold influence over our economy, public policy, and consumer behavior. How did these four become so successful? How high can they continue to rise? Does any other company stand a chance of competing?

To these questions and more, acclaimed NYU / Stern professor Scott Galloway brings bracing answers. In his highly provocative first book, he pulls back the curtain on exactly how Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google built their massive empires. While the media spins tales about superior products and designs, and the power of technological innovation, Galloway exposes the truth about these "Four Horsemen":
- None of these four are first movers technologically; they've either copied, stolen, or acquired their ideas.
- Each company uses evolutionary psychology to appeal to our basest instincts: Amazon, our need to hunt and gather; Apple, our need to procreate; Facebook, our need for love; and Google, our need for a God.
- These companies are uniquely successful at leveraging competitive advantage built by digital and then protected by analog moats, from an empire of retail stores (Apple) to the world's most efficient physical distribution network (Amazon.)

Through analysis that's both rigorous and entertaining, Galloway outlines the path for the next trillion-dollar company (the Fifth Horseman) and points to which companies are in the running. (Uber, sure; less obvious, Microsoft and Starbucks.) As with Peter Thiel's Zero to One, readers will come away with fresh, game-changing insights about what it takes to win in today's economy.


My Review
: There is no spectacle more repugnant, even repulsive, than naked greed being slaked without shame or even modesty. That is where we are now, as a society, in large part because these four corporations have enabled this behavior in their minions as well as demonstrated it in themselves. A trillion-dollar valuation as a business? It's the avowed goal of all four of these metastatic money pits.

Go watch this explainer on the difference between a million somethings and a billion somethings. It's sobering. Even chilling. And a trillion is yet another order of magnitude greater!

Now think about what this represents...what staggering greed it represents to pursue this goal of creating that much excess at the expense of any and all other goals or principles. Author Galloway has done that thinking. He does not like the principles The Four have utterly abandoned, flouted, or subverted. It is incredible to me that this naked greed, this pathology of psychological orientation, is so celebrated. To the point that the business news cycles are dominated by the horse-race between these bloated-bank-account barons of bad business practice.

I confess that Author Galloway isn't a cicerone I enjoyed being led by. I suspect I'd deeply dislike him if we met in person because he is, while intelligent and savvy, nowhere near as witty or insightful as he seems to think he is. He's boastful and he's arrogant. What he isn't is wrong. He is quite clear that the way these corporate scum (my term, not his) are in fact harming the very economy that they rely on for their income. In the end, that will be their challenge and he (like me) is dubious about their ability to change their course: Change, or die in a welter of your own hemorrhaging money.

Schadenfreude leads me to laugh a hearty bray of triumph. Except I won't fail to suffer in their gargantuan collapse.

On Wednesday, 29 July 2020, and days forward, the four horse-manuremen of the datapocalypse testified before Congress about their insane, untrammeled greed and its deleterious effect on Society. I presupposed a more condign end result of the hearing here because I am under no obligation to hide my own opinion of these nauseating monopolists...but now, in May 2022, Congress is looking beadily at them again with an eye to figuring out how much their greed has fueled our present 8%-plus annual rate of inflation.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

THE LISTENER AND OTHER STORIES, a neglected...forgotten, really...midcentury writer's collection

THE LISTENER and Other Stories

E.P. Dutton
Out of print; various prices

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Time magazine called Helen Hudson's first novel, Tell the Time to None, "a clean-cut gem of a novel." The New York Times Book Review said, "Miss Hudson is a gifted writer; and she is to be welcomed."

Now in these thirteen stories Miss Hudson demonstrates again her remarkable ability to be at once satirically incisive and compassionate, to delineate the human being while exposing the irony of the human scene.

Many of her stories deal with solemn themes, but even the most somber of them is enlivened by her unexpected wit, the swift, wicked similes of her observations. Hers is prose for everyone who delights in the language.

Above all, these are character studies in which the individuality of her creations is vivid. The stories are frequently both poignant and astringent, for Helen Hudson presents such contrasting pictures of her characters that she is able to evoke sympathy even for those she reveals most completely.


My Review
: I love discovering new-to-me writers. When my mother died in 1999, she had in her downsized library a large selection of midcentury writers whose oeuvres are largely forgotten today...Sloan Wilson, John P. Marquand, Harry Golden...many of which I've managed to retain over my own peregrinations.

Three of Miss Helen Hudson's books, this one, Tell the Time to None, and Meyer Meyer, were there as well. There they sat ignored by me for literal decades. I paid them no mind but liked the Sixties aesthetic of their jackets. Then I was at a lovely, long-gone bookstore in Austin, Texas, browsing the bizarre and eclectic collection of modern, current, and antiquitous books its truly weird owner had accreted. There was a short-story anthology called New Voices, '64...and since a forty-year-old selection of "new voices" is bound to be fascinating, it came home with me.

Helen Hudson's story, A Bottle of Sherry to Dr. Polk, was in that anthology. I read it with complete pleasure, a real sense of knowing this main character and the support staff making her life possible, and the acerbic nature of the lady's humor (I speak of both author and character):
“...And where's Margaret Pier? I know she's not dead, even if she's almost as old as I am and twice as stubborn."

"She said she'd never set foot inside this house again. Not after what you said the last time."

"Did I say something dreadful?"

"You said blind Republicanism like hers was an inherited social disease, like syphilis. You said it. I heard you myself.”
My very own soul-mother, is Mrs. Pritchard. I love that and I love her and I realized that thank goodness I had the whole collection to read! I was chuffed. I was also mid-upheaval in my life, and the project of reading and reviewing the collection fell by the wayside. I added the book to my online catalogs in 2011 and found again the quote above, and another below, from Dr. Polk; what a delight! More personal-life upheavals followed in fairly short order; the read-n-review project got shelved (heh) again.

I follow a blog called Neglected Books and have since goodness-knows. I've found many a forgotten tome to enjoy, notably the now-well-known classic Missouri novel The Moonflower Vine that the blog helped rehabilitate. I have a list of amazing authors I'd thought of mentioning to Blogger Brad Bigelow over time, but never did for a huge variety of reasons. Well, I did it this year, and the author was Helen Hudson.

She was the big sis of Encyclopedia Brown's creator, Donald Sobol. They were products of the Depression-era left-wing Jewish world of the Bronx. It shows in Author Hudson's frequent forays into the world of social-justice fiction, most notably in her last two novels (1971's Farnsbee South and the delightful Criminal Trespass from 1985); she's also the editor of a 2002 charity anthology called Dinner at Six: Voices from the Soup Kitchen, which I possess but haven't read. Her desire to strike a blow against mindless conformity and unquestioning acceptance of the status quo is the thread that tied together all of her work that I've read, and I suspect all that I haven't yet.

For all who, like me, remember when Kirkus Reviews hated everything except the very, very best work, I reproduce here their assessment of The Listener and Other Stories:
Marking, but not necessarily wasting, time while waiting for an appropriate successor to Miss Hudson's fine novel Meyer (sic) (1966), these stories read like probing a dying nerve–a series of nasty jabs compulsively sought. In spite of the energetic manipulations to mystify and terrify—somehow you keep on reading. The title story details the psychiatric career of a bloodless doctor whose imperviousness drives his patients to death and ruin, until he is finally pierced at once by the cries of his patients and quits his profession. There is a jovial undertaker whose love for his work is unappreciated by a grieving couple: a suburban matron who is shockingly lured to death by a shuffling old woman whose affiliation is suspect; a suicide who had touched the lives of his neighbors; a large unloving lady haunted by the masculine spirit of rising walls; an elderly man who leads a phantom congregation as a Jewish temple is destroyed. Three of the stories deal with less eccentric matters, among them the bitter career of an exploited Negro housekeeper. Perhaps Miss Hudson needs the novel form for a deeper and more liberal probe of people as well as circumstance. However these are diverting exercises if the Glance Macabre is for you.

The Glance Macabre (love that phrase!) being very much for me, off I go! Of course, I'll make my customary comments à la the Bryce Method.

The Listener couldn't be more 1967 (the year The Virginia Quarterly first published it) with its free association and celebration of analysis. Dr. Toye's enormous ears and absence of personality make him the caricature analyst, silent and open to the shrieks and moans of the needy. Then in comes a man with a seriously unexamined life; a man with hidden desires and a wife who bores him out of his mind; and Dr. Toye listens him into an early grave. The long dark night of Dr. Toye's soul has begun.
He spent his life in his house, downstairs during the day and upstairs at night, and never went out to lunch. For the truth was that he was happy only in his office, sitting upright behind his desk with a body stretched out on his couch and a voice talking just to him.
Born too soon, our Dr. Toye. He should be among us now. 4.5 stars

Sunday Mourning reveals the deep fissures in lives struck by tragedy. An undertaker, an unhappy profession to be sure, grows accustomed to death; but the living left in its wake are a fresh, painful disappointment every day. This isn't a story so much as a beautiful observation of three people in extremis.
Mr. Hawley, the undertaker, was a big man with a tweed jacket and seat in the New Hampshire legislature.
She was a small scrawny woman with a round little mouth shaped to hold a straw, as though she took life in tiny sips.
No one is less prepared for death than a parent is for their child's. Author Hudson had no illusions about how pain destroys identity. She was able to reassure us that there is still restoration and rebuilding after its ravages. 3.5 stars

The Strange Testament of Michael Cassidy examines the weird, frictionless life of a casually anti-Semitic, racist Catholic whose Jewish neighbors he has never failed to serve in his grocery store. He detests and despises Maureen, his crass and hateful wife though he shares her prejudices in his quiet way. This being the 1960s, though, Cassidy is caught in an ugly war between tradition and modernity that we called "urban renewal" or "slum clearance" then; today its successor is the less obviously offensive "gentrification." Ghastly Maureen will go to her ghastly sister in Kansas; Cassidy will not. He remains in the old homeplace. Where will he live?
...he discovered the temple, though he did not realize, at first, what it was, merely a huge old building empty and silent, surrounded by gaps, and left to rot in the rain. He found a side door unlocked as if for him, a sanctuary of silence for a man whose head was a drum for the world to beat.
His quiet-man act at last rewarded with silence! Until, one day, the past comes calling with its one unshirkable responsibility. 4 stars

The Hungry Eye belongs, in a roundabout way, to Michèle, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Paris. Her life is blighted by the unfashionable size of her, at a time and in a place where "petite" was de rigueur and "mignon" was not just a modifier for expensive filet. She has lived the most useless imaginable life; she does nothing, causes nothing, cares for nothing but herself. This is the most New Yorkery story I've read by Author Hudson, and still it manages to be truly bitterly angry about the waste and uselessness of "the ladies who lunch." In the end, what I found silly and what displeased me was the silent chorus, the personified self-image that takes up the story's space the way Michèle takes up her bijou little apartment. A disappointed 3.5 stars, all for the off-kilter eroticism of sexless voyeuristic intentions.

Send a Patrol Car to Spartanburg isn't even a little bit subtle in its accusation of cruelty by neglect in a racist society. Mattie Burns isn't in control of anything about her life, she works for the Lovings (get it?) and when I say "works" I mean it literally. Scrub, polish, well let Author Hudson tell you:
{Mattie} had worked for the Lovings for years, ever since their first child and their first move. They had lived on the third floor of a narrow, surly little frame house that pinched and squeezed at every turn, its windows fixed intently on the slums creeping up slowly two and a half blocks away. Mattie had carried the garbage can up and down three flights of stairs and piled most of the furniture out the back door when guests came. The Lovings paid her the standard minimum wage, even though "domestics" were not included in the law, and she scrubbed and swept and waxed and polished and hung out the wash, sitting on the toilet seat and leaning out the third-floor window, which, her friends warmed her, was dangerous for a woman with her "pressure."
But Mattie can't just quit, there's brother Clifford's pills to buy and administer, there's her own home to clean, there's the whole world waiting on an old black woman to bend her back and get after it. Zora Neale Hurston said, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, "De nigger woman is de mule uh de world." Mattie would agree, I will just bet. 4 stars because it appeared in Mademoiselle magazine in 1966 and how Author Hudson managed to storm that bastion of privilege with this angry story beggars my paltry imagination.

Hermes' Beard chronicles the Greek adventures of Arleene and Gerald, American (of course) tourists (of course) whose entire lives are summed up in the one moment when Arleene (!) says to herself, "Gerald was right about everything." And how horrible it was that he dared to be right about everything since the trip was her idea. And how much she detests his big, American size and his German-speaking communication with the locals (remembering this is a mere 20 years after the Nazi occupation of Greece) and, well, him. All of him. She even resents the fact that he dared to be right about the Hermes of Praxiteles being less impressive than the archaic statue, Hermes Kriophoros, whose beard we have all seen in our art history course texts.
In short, the sheer unadulterated bliss of marriage. Whiny meets overbearing, neither side "wins" because it's a draw as to who's the more awful wretch. 4 stars

A Bottle of Sherry to Dr. Polk details the last moments of independence that a starchy matriarch, Mrs. George Pritchard (Emma), as she move into a nursing home since her advancing dementia will no longer allow her not to be constantly supervised. She hasn't lost her self yet, though one can sense its inevitability:
“Frankie," she said softly, "do you know what my idea of heaven is? A place where the windows are always clean, and the people I want can always come to dinner.”
Her long-time day nurse receives the confidence with stoic, understated unhappiness; an older man with rather too much experience dealing with dementia-suffering souls, I was deeply and sadly affected by the story, by the sense that it gave me of Author Hudson's intimate knowledge of her material. I give it 5 stars

After Cortés goes there with the anti-Catholic rhetoric:
...the humiliation of his spirit was the worst of all. He felt no Father to this slovenly, loose-lipped flock. It pained him to force his mind to meet theirs, to reduce the intricacy and beauty and mystery of Catholic dogma to the simple act and the blunt command, like limiting Hamlet to its plot. He read late at night, and since there was no one with whom to share his thoughts, he took them to Mexico each summer. There the mating of mind and eye helped to carry him through the next winter.
Mexico's long-famous tradition of anticlericalism, and its openly syncretic species of Catholicism, make Father Charles Cheney feel anonymous enough to wear a flowered shirt and khakis in place of the collar and rigmarole he trudges through his East Bronx life in. While approaching Chichén Itzá he meets Carla, a tourist from LA and one of the California types that's so effin' irritating you want to slap them goodbye before they plummet over a handy cliff: the "free spirit" who makes no plan, reserves no room, brings only what money they have and then sponges and mooches and wheedles their way around wherever it is they land. To be fair, these people are from everywhere, but the American entitlement of the Carlas of California is extra grating. Father Cheney does his damnedest (!) to unscrape his unwanted acquaintance, wishing all manner of uncharitable things on the Mormon missionaries and the rich Texans who stay in his hotel. He even devises a subterfuge to avoid them all: He will get up at five-thirty to see the ruins and be on his way back to Mexico City before they drag themselves out of bed! But Gawd, in her merciless pitiless cruelty, will not have any such pleasure doled out to her priest. Oh no indeed. 4 stars for the glorious gall-and-wormwood ending.

The Tenant expresses the tragedy of one who is simply not meant for this world.
After it happened, the neighbors all said they'd always known there was something queer about Mr. Markham...{b}ut at the time, Mr. Markham was merely a pale, thin man in a gray suit and a narrow tie who lived in the attic with his wife; he was a good-looking man, though his face seemed, somehow, more like a slightly smudged copy than the real thing. ... They never learned where he was from. They only knew that he did not seem to belong here. He had the terrible courtesy of the permanent guest.
People like Mr. Markham, who married the lazy but competent Mrs. Markham despite the fact that she was not pretty or witty or anything except devoted and grateful that he noticed her, aren't really of the Earth still less any specific location on it. That was Mrs. Markham's job. Her life changed when their money ran out. He wasn't fit for anything practical so she went to get food for the table. He drifted. He took jobs and left or lost them in no time at all. He wore holes in his shoes trying to make the world give him a space, and still he couldn't.

It's a very sad tale, but one I'll bet you any money there's a face attached to in your mind's eye already. Most of us know a Markham, a man or woman who simply...can't. This one, Author Hudson conjured a caring and devoted mate for and that makes the inevitable end so much more poignant. 4 stars

The Road to Kingswood stars an old-country woman, elderly, with "feet like hooves" in her sensible black oxfords meant for walking, walking, walking, trying to sell greeting cards to people who did not want or need to greet anyone with a cheap preprinted card. Mrs. Harrington, soignée widow of Hank, dreads this apparition appearing on her doorstep. As soon as she opens the door to get rid of her, the worst of her nightmares comes true. The slightly sweaty old thing squats at her kitchen table, demanding a glass of water then a ride to the bus stop...and at every turn, Mrs. Harrington (née Butt, of Myrtle Avenue, Flatbush) fails every test of common decency and courtesy. She wants the untidy creature out of her nine-room home with its two-hundred-year-old furniture! Why should she drive the always-walking woman to the bus stop when she got here by herself?

The gods disapprove of selfishness. The road to the burial ground awaits us all, but when and how are the unknowns. 4 stars

Strange Fare goes in a hack for the last, long ride with a stranger. A cabbie becomes Charon; a man whose Earthly days are done hails him and begs to be taken home.

How funny it is when someone you don't know needs more than you can imagine giving. 3.5 stars

An Appointment with Armstrong joins a used-up, useless old academic, a relic of a day gone forever, as he is once again about to be ritually humiliated in his quest for the final accolade once bestowed upon Professors: tenure. He is summoned to his department head's office for an eleven-thirty meeting, and of course readies himself to go promptly. He moves through his solitary home, once shared with a woman he never saw fade out of her prime in deepening despair and disappointment.
It seemed ages now since Louise had died, leaving him all alone with the empty years flapping about him. But it was only last fall when Death had crept round and round the house like a starved cat. Nursing Louise, he had known it was there, though he kept the doors closed and the shades drawn against it. Louise had known too, and accepted it, even welcomed it after the long years of illness. She stopped noting the days or the hours; forgot to remind him to leave the laundry out on Thursdays or pay the cleaning woman on Fridays or get her medicine. She merely lay quietly with her eyes closed in the darkened room under the mound of blankets, as though she could no longer wait and had made her own grave and settled herself in it.
Author Hudson knew that woman, I'm sure, and knew the husband whose failure to launch was more caustic to her than to him. Her life ended in a heap of leftover shreds; his potters along as it always has, as he always was and so is today. The ice between them wasn't visible to him and was lethal to her. The meeting with Armstrong, we know from the moment the subject is broached, will never happen and nothing will change until the day this dry, pointless man's largely unused heart stops. 4 stars for the savagery of Author Hudson's hatred sheathed in such an elegant way.

Thy Servant is another one of Author Hudson's angry screeds against the religious among us for their terrible, two-faced judgmental ways. Suzie is coming to be housekeeper for Mr. and Mrs.Gillespie and their SEVEN daughters (but they aren't Catholic!), just until her husband's hitch in the Army is over. Suzie is a perfect fit for the family, omnicompetent, overdriven to achieve, and as the oldest of thirteen (Catholic) children accustomed to enforcing discipline.

Except...what do you know...her perfection is, while not an act, just the opening act of an emotional Grand Guignol that is Single White Female meets Hazel. The story is utterly chilling. It's devastating in its judgements of the Gillespies as layabouts and Suzie as Torquemada in Mother Teresa's weeds. This is the most even-handed hatchet job that's been done outside of a murder scene. And the best part is there is no one except a seven-year-old child who witnesses the entire unwinding of these grave-cloths. We're not treated to overheated emotional scenes, we're given the simple and unadorned facts the way a kid sees the world and then, mirabile dictu, the kid survives the crash without so much as a scrape! 4 stars

Fine farewell to Author Hudson's world. È finita la commedia per ora.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

YOU EXIST TOO MUCH, Queer Palestinian girl finds out how her world works...then says "BYE NOW"


$26.00 hardcover, available now


Rating: 6* of five

The Publisher Says: On a hot day in Bethlehem, a twelve-year-old Palestinian American girl is yelled at by a group of men outside the Church of the Nativity. She has exposed her legs in a biblical city, an act they deem forbidden, and their judgement will echo on through her adolescence. When our narrator finally admits to her mother that she is queer, her mother’s response only intensifies a sense of shame: “You exist too much,” she tells her daughter.

Told in vignettes that flash between the United States and the Middle East—from New York to Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine—Zaina Arafat’s debut novel traces her protagonist’s progress from blushing teen to sought-after DJ and aspiring writer. In Brooklyn, she moves into an apartment with her first serious girlfriend and tries to content herself with their comfortable relationship. But soon her longings, so closely hidden during her teenage years, explode out into reckless romantic encounters and obsessions with other people. Her desire to thwart her own destructive impulses will eventually lead her to The Ledge, an unconventional treatment center that identifies her affliction as “love addiction.” In this strange, enclosed society she will start to consider the unnerving similarities between her own internal traumas and divisions and those of the places that have formed her.

Opening up the fantasies and desires of one young woman caught between cultural, religious, and sexual identities, You Exist Too Much is a captivating story charting two of our most intense longings—for love and a place to call home.


My Review
: The frustrations of being Othered by virtue of being your own self are not fresh ground to till. Eternally fertile ground growing evergreen crops, though not fresh. I read this book twice and that is a rare occurrence for me, at my age and with my TBR approaching mid-four figures. The reason I decided that I needed a second trip through the book was simple: I was so completely shattered by the honest and vulnerable story Author Arafat tells, a story that could with only minor tweaks be my own, that I didn't trust my opinion-forming ability. I was too close, too in the moment, to feel remotely analytical.

Start with the beginning, an anecdote from the US-raised narrator's childhood visit to her "homeland":
It occurred to me in that moment to question why, as a man, his bare legs were somehow less troubling than mine. It was a double standard, a shame I had simply accepted until then. I must've done something wrong. In acquiring my gender, I had become offensive.
As though a young girl's walking apparatus could somehow be unacceptable! "Haram" or "forbidden" the old religious nuts shout at her. Among the many, many reasons I find religions and religious beliefs offensive in the extreme is the insanity of accepting that your being, whatever part of it the religious don't happen to like, is unacceptable, nay offensive, to the god they claim made you. But Author Arafat reclaims the space:
Ambiguity was an unsettling yet exhilarating space.
I don't inhabit an ambiguous space, being bearded and so American in appearance that, in other countries, American tourists glom onto me for help dealing with the foreignness of their presence in wherever. But there's that inner thing, the queerness, that never, ever quite stays unnoticed. And that is probably why Author Arafat notices with such keenness that her ability to get by with chicanery is such excellent camouflage. It becomes an addicition, in fact. It's easy for someone like me, who also had a borderline personality disordered mother, to relate to her need, her survival-level desire, to camouflage, hide, obfuscate, not say the truth:
I could think of nothing more shameful—why was I doing this to her? At the time I thought the same thing: she should have had better. She didn't deserve this at all.
"I don't care what you choose to do anymore," she said, and I crumbled. I needed her to care. Worse than anger was indifference.
Didn't deserve what, having a queer child? She's the one who's fucked up for making it such a huge stinkin' deal. Mother Abu Sa'ab and her utter inability to see people not herself as real, fully formed human beings with valid needs. Her child's needs are only seen as demands on her, unfair unjust "what did I do to deserve this?!" impositions. Affection is a conditional gift, not a right...not even a privilege. So Laila Abu Sa'ab, beautiful mother of a plain daughter who is awkward, unpolished, generally not like her, sets the stage for innumerable false trails her (always unnamed, this is all first-person present tense narration so she doesn't need to identify herself) child will follow:
I imagined she was judging me in that moment. I'm familiar with that judgment, after years of anorexia. I was past it by then, but still, how could I eat something so unsexy as a cheeseburger in front of the sexiest woman in the universe?
I was in between post-anorexia plump and all-night double sets, with no snack breaks—what if she didn't like my body? My mother had recently impersonated me, puffing up her cheeks and holding out her arms beyond her stomach like an ape.
Ah, the addict's favorite crutch: "{object} won't love me if..." and then the spiral goes down from there. "My image is only safe when others are at a safe distance!" and the distance, unsurprisingly, never gets smaller so the isolation becomes unbearable and the addiction comes back and "{object} won't love me now!" lather rinse repeat. It's inevitable. A mother without compassion plus a nature unacceptable to her world (the world, if I'm honest) can't be expected to create any other kind of result.

Then her girlfriend, four years of wondering what the hell is going on inside her partner's head, takes advantage of the narrator's absence to do the stupid, unforgivable thing that almost everyone does: She snoops. Reads emails not meant for her eyes. Be careful, partners, about this behavior. If you discover things that hurt you, no one is to blame but you yourself. "It's better to know!" rises the cry...and I say, "you already knew or you wouldn't have snooped." Anna snoops. Anna finds a mountain of lying and cheating. Bad Anna.
The last line was the hardest to read, the one that made my throat burn: "Maybe one day you'll learn you can't treat people with such disregard. Even yourself."
I get why Anna wrote that, I really do, but that's the nastiest and most judgmental formulation of the truth she could've spun up. This is why the snooping behavior is so toxic. The self-righteousness of Being Right is insufferable and makes those addicts to it very unpleasant people. But the hurt Anna caused did catalyze the narrator to go on a search for help:
Google had informed me that a woman named Pia Mellody ... was the foremost expert on love addiction. She sounded like a character out of a self-help fairy tale; I pictured her with a tiara and a wand.
So did I. Not in a good way, either. These sorts of judgmental sunshine-enema-givers make me itch. "Love addiction"? Really. Addicted to the endorphin rush but short on follow-through, in my never-remotely-humble opinion. But off our narrator goes to this summer camp for the love-addicted. And runs smack into her anorexia anxiety:
I was too uncomfortable to eat, especially {burger buns} that looked like the cotton stuffing inside of furniture.
Why I throw the buns away and get real bread to put around my home-brought fast food burgers. This place is a sham, and the food is the first warning. But the twenty-eight days are crucial to getting to grips with the out-of-control anxiety the narrator suffers.

I don't want to spoiler the extremely moving ending. I don't think I can take you any farther into the text without running that risk. Suffice it to say that, for me, the beating heart of the book is anxiety and anger, an intergenerational gift from all the parts of the narrator's past from before she was born:
At the time I didn't realize what it was that separated the two sides of my family: that my paternal cousins did not live in the noisy neighborhood, go to the community pool, and wait to eat hummus sandwishes at home by choice.
What makes people from mismatched backgrounds think their marriages will work? Expectations unmet are more caustic than acid rain and do their damage just as devastatingly but far more quickly. Judgment is *lethal* to marital (any relationship, really) harmony and inevitable between the parties to an up/down marriage. And it is the gift that keeps on giving, passing to children and fucking them up royally. Add to this mental illness on one side, emotional deprivation and class consciousness on the other, and one gets this sad story of a woman facing the world with a raincoat and a butter knife when she needs a scuba suit and a spear-gun.

I was powerfully moved by this read. I identified with this young woman's pathology and her ancestry, although I'm not ethnically Arab or Palestinian or anything else the US looks down on. I totally understand misgendering and omitting details about one's significant others. Being situationally out, being "reserved" (the polite self-lie for "closeted"), being unable to see past the mountain of unworthy feelings that we stand under, behind, below.

She sought healing, our narrator did; I have as well; and I hope anyone who reads this book (I hope there will be many, many of you) can and will seek healing as well.