The Cheek of God

I definitely inhaled . . .

Category: books

Five Debut Novels You Should Read Right Now Or I’ll Come To Your House And Wear Your Slippers And Eat Your Food And Read Them To You

No time for blogging; it’s all been said, and better, anyway.  Trayvon this.  Baby George that.  BlogHer blah blah blah.

Me?  I’ve been reading, you see.  Making good on my New Year’s resolution to read as many debut novels as I can afford to load onto my Nook HD+.  An experiment of sorts to immerse myself in what first-time authors are getting published, in hopes of polishing my own feeble attempts at fiction writing.  These are the gems (with descriptive blurbs courtesy of Goodreads and my own review of each) . . .

CameronPost

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.

Verdict: An amazing debut. The writing is so catchy and never strays. Longish, but never slow. And don’t be fooled by those who whine about the portrayal of Christians. Being a recovering Pentecostal, I believe it was accurate and fair. Even sympathetic at times. Others have moaned about the ending. I found it completely fulfilling. Tough issues, handled with grace and care. And Montana!

HeartOfPalm

Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith

Utina, Florida, is a small, down-at-heels southern town. Once enlivened by the trade in Palm Sunday palms and moonshine, Utina hasn’t seen economic growth in decades, and no family is more emblematic of the local reality than the Bravos. Deserted by the patriarch years ago, the Bravos are held together in equal measure by love, unspoken blame, and tenuously brokered truces.

The story opens on a sweltering July day, as Frank Bravo, dutiful middle son, is awakened by a distress call. Frank dreams of escaping to cool mountain rivers, but he’s only made it ten minutes from the family restaurant he manages every day and the decrepit, Spanish-moss-draped house he was raised in, and where his strong-willed mother and spitfire sister—both towering redheads, equally matched in stubbornness—are fighting another battle royale. Little do any of them know that Utina is about to meet the tide of development that has already engulfed the rest of Northeast Florida. When opportunity knocks, tempers ignite, secrets are unearthed, and each of the Bravos is forced to confront the tragedies of their shared past.

Reminiscent of Kaye Gibbons, Lee Smith, Anne Tyler, and Fannie Flagg,Heart of Palm introduces Laura Lee Smith as a captivating new voice in American fiction.

Verdict: Superb! A stunning debut, filled with rich characters, laughs and heartache, and unfailingly faith in the strength and the strangeness of family. Remember the old Paul Newman movie “Nobody’s Fool?” The same goosebumps. This is how characters are made, and remembered, for years to come.

AlexWoods

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood.

But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.

So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing …

Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.

Verdict: A damn near perfectly written novel. Any synopsis would not do it justice, so go with your gut on this one. I laughed and cried and, for the first time, had to just sit and ponder this one when I finished it. Most impressive was the way the narrator never did anything that didn’t make sense to him. Building a moral framework in life is hard, but Alex rose to the challenge and found his heart. So impressed …

TruthInAdvertising

Truth In Advertising by John Kenney

“F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. I have no idea what that means but I believe that in quoting him I appear far more intelligent than I am. I don’t know about second acts, but I do think we get second chances, fifth chances, eighteenth chances. Every day we get a fresh chance to live the way we want.”

Finbar Dolan is lost and lonely. Except he doesn’t know it. Despite escaping his blue-collar Boston upbringing to carve out a mildly successful career at a Madison Avenue ad agency, he’s a bit of a mess and closing in on forty. He’s recently called off a wedding. Now, a few days before Christmas, he’s forced to cancel a long-postponed vacation in order to write, produce, and edit a Super Bowl commercial for his diaper account in record time.

Fortunately, it gets worse. Fin learns that his long-estranged and once-abusive father has fallen ill. And that neither of his brothers or his sister intend to visit. It’s a wake-up call for Fin to reevaluate the choices he’s made, admit that he’s falling for his coworker Phoebe, question the importance of diapers in his life, and finally tell the truth about his past.

Truth in Advertising is debut novelist John Kenney’s wickedly funny, honest, at times sardonic, and ultimately moving story about the absurdity of corporate life, the complications of love, and the meaning of family.

Verdict: It took a few pages to draw me in, and the story seemed to go nowhere at first. But I loved the style, written much the way I like to write, with asides and tangents that seem absurd at first but swing back around and illuminate the narrative as it unfolds. This is the first book I’ve read this year that I enjoyed because it is so much like the kind of story I’d like to write. There is heart here, even amidst the navel gazing and self-loathing. In the end, I cried. Hope rings true . . .

FellowMortals

Fellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney

When Henry Cooper sets out on his mail route on Arcadia Street one crisp spring morning, he has no idea that his world is about to change. He is simply enjoying the sunshine as he lights up a cigar and tosses the match to the ground, entirely unaware that he has just started a fire that will destroy a neighborhood and kill a young wife.

Even though the fire has been put out, it has ignited a lurking menace in an otherwise apparently peaceful suburb. In Fellow Mortals, Dennis Mahoney depicts the fire’s aftermath in the lives of its survivors. There’s Henry’s wife, Ava, devoted to her husband but yearning to recover a simpler time in their marriage. There’s the angry neighbor, Peg, who wants Henry to pay for what he’s done, no matter the cost—which ends up being grave. And then there’s Sam Bailey, the sculptor who lost his wife in the fire and has retreated to the woods to carve mysterious figures out of trees. As Sam struggles to overcome his anger and loss, Henry becomes the focal point of deepening loyalties and resentments, leaving them all vulnerable to hidden dangers and reliant on the bonds that have emerged, unexpectedly, from tragedy.

With sparse and handsome prose reminiscent of Raymond Carver and early Stewart O’Nan, Mahoney’s probing first novel charts the fall of a man who has spent his life working to be decent and shows us a community trying desperately to hold itself together.

Verdict: A lovely debut novel. Full of the kind of characters I love, down to earth folks that you’re likely to run into at the supermarket. Reminded me of Dubus in many ways. Even the dog, Wingnut, is a fleshed-out, lovable creature. His point of view, though sparse, adds to the story.  These people are flawed and perfect . . .

I’ve read more, some equally as good.  But these stand out.  Thematically, they are all similar: the complexities of families; recovery from tragedy; growing up and growing old.  And each has given me much to chew on with regards to storytelling and writing. 

If we’re not friends on Goodreads, remedy that here.  And, by all means, send your suggestions.  There’s a lot of year left.  You know where I’ll be . . .

Imperiled

Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real me,’ and when you have found that attitude, follow it.

~ William James

I’ve recently felt the desire to once again dabble in writing fiction. I’ve written some short stories in the past, culled from scribblings upon the backs of envelopes or the scrawls upon Post-It notes, and I remember with great joy the feeling of accomplishment. Some of my characters are memorable to me, for all their idiosyncrasies and wanton altruism – a sort of incongruous harmony, if you please.

The sort of characters that just might – I fancy, in my more congratulatory moments – make Andre Dubus proud.

The short stories of Andre Dubus have inspired me for over a decade, ever since I first picked up his Selected Stories and devoured it like a kid does Gummi worms or sugar-coated breakfast cereal. I relate particularly well with the father figures created in “A Father’s Story” or “Killings,” which became the 2001 movie In the Bedroom. Their tenacious ambiguity, in the name of devotion, strike me as genuine. Authentic. Each walks a path that rings true, even if far from ordinary or acceptable.

So I plucked it from my shelf, intent on reading it again. To inspire me.

As I did so, I also took notice of the adjacent book, a collection of essays titled Meditations from a Movable Chair, penned by Dubus before his death in 1999. This one, I hadn’t read as thoroughly, instead having only skimmed through it on occasion.

Big mistake, for here is the motivation behind the man and his work. The frustrations and joys of being real, of doing what he loved even when no one noticed. The stuff that shaped the stories. And one essay, titled “Imperiled Men,” struck me as particularly timely.

In the essay, he recounted his days as a marine lieutenant aboard a US aircraft carrier in the western Pacific during the early part of the 1960s, where he and his men were assigned the task of guarding the ship’s cache of nuclear weapons. At the heart of the essay is his recollections of a man known only by the acronym CAG, a commander with an Air Group assigned to the carrier to run training missions in preparation for bombing raids over Moscow. CAG was a decorated pilot, having flown missions during WWII, and Dubus shares how excited he felt when, during a stop at Iwakuni, he would have a chance to walk with him through the Hiroshima memorial and pick his ear, how “I would walk with him, and look at him, and his seasoned eyes and steps would steady mine.” But CAG had been called back aboard the carrier and missed the trip. Only later did he learn what had prompted CAG’s detainment . . .

That night I . . . climbed to my upper bunk, and slept for only a while, till the quiet voice of my roommate woke me: “The body will be flown to Okinawa.”

I looked at him standing at his desk and speaking into the telephone.

“Yes. A thirty-eight in the temple. Yes.”

I turned on my reading lamp and watched him put the phone down. He was sad, and he looked at me. I said: “Did someone commit suicide?”

“CAG.”

“CAG?”

I sat up.

“The ONI investigated him.”

Then I knew what I had not known I knew, and I said: “Was he a homosexual?”

“Yes.”

He told me two investigators from the Office of Naval Intelligence had come aboard that morning and had given the captain their report. The investigators were with the executive officer when he summoned CAG to his office and showed him the report and told him that he could either resign or face a general court-martial. Then CAG went to his room. Fifteen minutes later, the executive officer phoned him; when he did not answer, the executive officer and the investigators ran to his room. He was on his bunk, shot in the right temple, his revolver in his hand. His eyelids fluttered; he was unconscious but still alive, and he died from bleeding.

“They ran?” I said. “They ran to his room?”

Ten years later, one of my shipmates came to visit me in Massachusetts; we had been civilians for a long time. In my kitchen, we were drinking beer, and he said: “I couldn’t tell you this aboard ship, because I worked in the legal office. They called CAG back from that boat you were on, because he knew the ONI was onboard. His plane was on the ground in Iwakuni. They were afraid he was going to fly it and crash into the sea and they’d lose the plane.”

All thirty-five hundred men of the ship’s crew did not mourn. Not every one of the hundreds of men in the Air Group mourned. But the shock was general and hundreds of men did mourn, and each morning we woke to it, and it was in our talk in the wardroom and in the passageways. In the closed air of the ship, it touched us, and it lived above us on the flight deck, and in the sky. One night at sea, a young pilot came to my room; his face was sunburned and sad. We sat in desk chairs, and he said: “The morale is very bad now. The whole Group. It’s just shot.”

“Did y’all know about him?”

“We all knew. We didn’t care. We would have followed him to hell.”

Timely?

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is in the news once again, though you might have missed it with that slick in the Gulf perhaps justifiably dominating the headlines. A few years ago, I had no idea what Don’t Ask Don’t Tell meant, nor could I have spelled out the havoc this ambiguous amalgamation of policy and law has reeked upon so many willing and able-bodied individuals. I’m changing that. Amidst my weak attempts at fiction, and once again devouring Andre Dubus, I am also reading Nathaniel Frank’s Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, and Steve Estes’ Ask & Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out. In the former, Frank sums things up in a way that makes sense:

By defining conduct as including a statement of status, and defining a statement of status to include any indication that one may have a “propensity” to engage in homosexual conduct, the military was able to get around the legal objection that they were targeting people for who they were and thus violating the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians. And by insisting that the policy does not punish people for being homosexual, only for engaging in homosexual conduct, the government implies that anyone who is fired under the policy has willingly chosen to break the rules. In reality, the policy targets same-sex desire itself, and bans what gay people, by definition, do, while allowing straight people who engage in occasional gay fun to go right on serving. It is no more conduct-based than a rule that bars people from praying to Jesus – this is what Christians do, just as having sexual relations with people of the same sex is what gays do. Is banning people for praying to Jesus any different from banning Christians? Is a restaurant that bans creatures who bark not a restaurant that bars dogs? Is a policy that bars people who engage in homosexual behavior not a policy that bars homosexuals?

I’ve also found this to be interesting reading. It states that “Success in combat requires military units that are characterized by high morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion.” I can buy that. However, it also states that “The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.”

In this day and age, how are these two statements compatible? Are we, as a nation, no longer willing to grant people the benefit of their integrity? Maybe I’m naïve, but it seems to me that a great majority of those who sign up and qualify for military service, are ready to die for This Great Nation of ours – for you, and me – are also willing to not let their “propensity” for certain sexual activities, whether of the straight or gay nature, get in the way of achieving the goal they’ve set for themselves. Show me the instances where those in the military have failed to do so, and I’ll be willing to bet that the sexual activities engaged in run the gamut of experiences, not just those of a homosexual nature.

To be clear, I’m not saying that conduct unbecoming should not be punished. If harm has been done, then let the consequences be meted out. But the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy is something altogether different, for how can one be justifiably punished for simply being who they are? Normal people. With normal desires and affections. I know a few homosexuals. And, trust me, they are normal. Not in a boring sense of the word, but in a one of us kind of way. And I trust them. They have my back, in more ways than can be imagined. They might even take a bullet for me.

On this Memorial Day, we are asked to remember those who have served. Not only those who are currently serving, but also those who have lost their lives, their limbs, and their livelihood. In doing so, let’s not forget those who have had distinguished military careers derailed as a result of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. And those like CAG, who even before such a policy existed were called back aboard the ship and given a choice no one in our military should have to make.

It’s time . . .

A Thousand Words II

This book is either really good or really bad. You decide . . .

The Wild Rumpus

The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.

~ Erma Bombeck

Back in the day, when that cruel taskmaster Time doled itself out in the intervals between diaper changes, snack times, stints at the office, and early-evening stroller rides around the neighborhood, when the house was a second-story loft apartment with one air conditioner in the master bedroom window, it was Will Smith as J, dressed in black and gettin’ jiggy with that slimy alien Mikey, that got the rumpus started.

Go ahead. Make your neck work. You know you want to . . .

Felt good, right? Damn straight it did. We’d jump on the bed, a tangled and bouncing mess of diapers and runny noses, a ganglion of giggles and squeals of delight. No pressure to get the moves right. Just wild abandon on a mattress that now, a decade and a mortgage later, sags in the middle.

As the years have passed, adding more and bigger kids to the mix, the rumpuses have moved from the bedroom into other arenas. There have been ball pits, parks with hunter-green plastic slides and cherry-red swings, fast food Playlands, bowling alleys with gutter bumpers and neon lights, glow-in-the-dark, indoor miniature golf courses, back yards cluttered with ruts, walnuts, and barbeque grills, and forest pathways lined with one-hundred-year-old oak trees, the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot. And water puddles, the kind that shimmer in the sun, their calm surfaces broken and sent skyward drop after drop by the intrusion of defrocked feet, leaving shins and calves sporting driblets of dried mud, the happy tears of a well-spent moment.

And movie theaters, for not all rumpuses need be raucous affairs. Not much beats the semiannual sharing of buttered and seasoned popcorn in buckets bigger than your head, sodas served by the gallon, chocolate covered raisins, and sticky red strands of Twizzlers. And then the refills, because that’s what The Wild Things would do, they would live it up while the living is easy.

Because, as Maurice Sendak reminded us a long time ago, and reminds us anew each day we are willing to remember, life is hard and rumpuses are rare and must be embraced with gusto, with hands weary from the toil and hearts weighed down and weakened by the strain of the stuff of life between the rumpuses. All of it is what makes us tick, and rumpuses lighten the load, each passing second a stone added to the lighter side of the scale. It’s a delicate balance, and it takes eyes and attitudes attuned to the deeper meaning of it all to keep things even.

So go ahead.  Rediscover the bond.  Unearth the thing that makes your neck work.  Find the time to let your own rumpus start.  Dinner will be warm and waiting . . .

[photo credit]

The Materials of Solitude

By pretending to have friends, maybe I could invent some.

~ Michael Chabon

I have myopia. Either my eyeballs are too long or my corneas are too steep. Maybe both; no one has ever really spelled out the specifics. Regardless, for several years now I have worn glasses when driving or watching television.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of both lately, lapping up Mad Men on DVD – much like my cat Meepo when he first discovered that he really liked the leftover mauve-colored milk from my morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles – in a mad-dash effort to get up-to-speed on all things Don Draper, and making the 6.8 mile trip up Homestead Road every afternoon to pick up my son from play practice. He landed the role of Ho-Jon in his high school’s staging of M*A*S*H. My son has long red hair, pimples, and mumbles in a very nasally, very Midwestern accent which, they’ll tell you if you bring it up, really isn’t much of an accent after all. He’s every kid. And he’s playing a Korean houseboy in less than a month. And I still have the third season to go.

So I’m going to need my glasses.

Only I took them off Saturday night in my garage, after watching the episode in which Peggy Olson finally gets her own office (prediction: she will be running Sterling Cooper before this thing wraps), and sat them down on the trunk of the car. Sunday morning, my wife ran to the store to pick up stuff to make potato soup. My glasses made it nearly two blocks before sliding off. This morning, we found the lenses along the side of the road, pockmarked and caked with Indiana clay. And in the “Wouldn’t You Know It” department, my script expired in 2005. “No, Mr. Thomas, we can’t just make you a new pair.” Curses!

Thankfully, I can handle reading. I’m in the middle of the fall semester and both of my classes are, for the first time in my academic career, online. For the record, this is a recipe for disaster for those of us who are chronic procrastinators. No weekly agenda. No lectures to attend. No hobnobbing face to face with the professor or my classmates. Instead, there is me, a pile of books, some documentaries on YouTube and PBS, Blackboard access, and tons of writing, with a journal entry here, an essay there, and midterms. Having pounded most of that out over the past couple of weeks, I now have the next few days to read and write about Richard Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome. With heads bowed and eyes closed, an altar call . . . Who wants to join me?! Anyone . . . ?

What if I throw in something a little less mind-numbing? In the mix, between the bickering and blathering of Arius and Athanasius and their myriad men-behaving-badly minions, I’ve been dipping my toes into purer waters – the consistently stunning prose of Michael Chabon’s latest book, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Few authors turn my crank as effortlessly as Chabon, whose Wonder Boys, Summerland, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are staples down the middle of my list of books that should be reread just for the sheer pleasure of doing so. In this book, his “first sustained work of personal writing,” Chabon doesn’t just share a story, he becomes the story. And, as should be the case with all meaningful memoirs, his essays dovetail with my own experiences, leading me to set the book aside occasionally and reflect on the connections we share. For example, in the very first chapter, titled “The Secret Handshake,” Chabon writes about his attempt, at the tender age of ten, to start his own comic book club. He fashioned a newsletter echoing the style of his hero Stan Lee, the brains, brawn, and balls behind the modern incarnation of Marvel comics, and, with the help of his mother, rented a room at the local community center, set up a table and some chairs, and hung up a hand-painted sign inviting one and all to join the club for the price of one dollar. One kid showed up, got freaked out by all those empty chairs, and left. He writes:

This is the point, to me, where art and fandom coincide. Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing. Every great record or novel or comic book convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever as one but which maintains chapters in every city – in every cranium – in the world. Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirely from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed.

And of course, as seems to be the case more than usual lately, especially during an online hiatus of sorts, I got to thinking about all this as it relates to blogging. We live our lives, experiencing the joys and sorrows, the ups and the downs, the times of plenty and times of need, the crowds and the quiet benches, and then eventually we sit down alone at our desks or on my our porch and craft these posts. We take what we see as we gaze at and engage with the grand panorama of life, and then pull our focus up close. Blogs like mine are the materials of solitude. And those of us who do this with no hope for immediate monetary gain become deliberately myopic, choosing not to focus on how far the words reach or on how broadly the ripples may spread, but instead are content with the nearness of the task at hand, the crafting of these invitations that we hang on our digital doorposts.

I admit that I often feel like that kid, sitting alone in the empty room, waiting for someone to come along, pull up a chair, and join me in dunking the cookies of fellowship. And into my little room you have come. This club is small, but it’s mine. I’m glad you’re here. And you can keep your dollar . . .

[top photo credit]

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