So. How’s your pandemic reading going?

However you’re reacting to the pandemic is the right way to react to the pandemic. Chances are, unless you were alive and sentient in 1918 during the Spanish flu, this is your very first virus rodeo.

Mask up and join the club.

I’m sure you’ve made ill-advised choices in quarantine: coloring your hair purple, ordering a shit ton of ridiculous things from Amazon (everything from Vitamin D to ward off COVID, to a paint by number kit, to a ridiculously tight and plunging top, to a jigsaw puzzle over here – justified by the stimulus check, and thanks to the U.S. government for funding my manic spending), binge watching the entirety of Netflix, not showering for days, then just as abruptly dressing up with full makeup, as if you were going somewhere but your own living room.

All of it. Normal.

Telling you it’s okay is telling myself the same. You are not the same person you were going into lock down; it would be more worrisome if you hadn’t evolved. There is no benchmark, no frame of reference for dealing with an unprecedented event.

If you don’t see a slightly different reflection in the mirror, it means you’ve learned nothing.

Cycling through hypomania and depression, in shelter in place I find one day I’m skipping merrily through the neighborhood taking pictures and noticing things, the next glowering down at the world from my eyrie in grim disapproval.

Perhaps dealing with my particular condition better equips me to deal with wildly improbable, shocking things: I am chemically stabilized! Take that, pandemic.

Desperation lead me to pull book after book off my shelves in quarantine. Maddening. Then one of them hit me just right, grabbing me by my poorly-groomed hair and pulling me right in.

Part fable, part contemporary tale of the complexities of raising a precocious child in small-town England, Lanny‘s complex and dark and exactly what I’d clearly been looking for. This book’s got a sinister, moldering and ancient sprite, for lack of the proper term, awoken from centuries of slumber by the arrival of a kindred spirit, a young and very odd boy named, wait for it: Lanny.

Lanny’s an “away with the fairies” sort of child, supernaturally gifted and unusual, set apart by his curious skills that can’t quite be explained away by conventional standards. The novel has an Alice in Wonderland quality I absolutely adored. Alice doesn’t even pretend to be a nice children’s book. It’s subversive, warped and surreal – three words that express how I like my reading and the people I surround myself with.

Of course the village in Porter’s book’s influenced by Wonderland. Lewis Carroll crafted the archetype of the surreal in modern literature about or for children. We steal from him shamelessly, all the time. And we should, by rights. Alice is perfection.

Why reinvent when you have the template?

YAS, RED QUEEN!

(The above will not age well.}

Most children are little terrors, and childhood shockingly awful. We like to attribute sweetness and nostalgia, but were you ever actually a child? It’s a lot more like Wonderland than Disney.

I get a grim satisfaction reading books like Lanny. Don’t dress childhood up in a Cinderella gown, sewn by mice and delicately draped over the body by birds. Admit there’s a point in every child’s life that things are an absolute shit-fest.

The most interesting people are warped and mischievous, just the teensiest bit evil, which is why we’re so fascinated when they do bad things. If it bleeds, it leads. That’s called human nature.

Lanny skims the surface of the truly terrible. It’s dark in the vein of the Brothers Grimm, diluted by comparison. Disturbing and unsettling enough, nothing over the edge.

The book brought me back to reading after such a long drought. The last books I read all the way through were for review – forced marches dictated by a paycheck. I didn’t enjoy them – freeing being able to admit that, now that the checks are long cleared.

Not all reviewing’s like that, by the way. Most editors approach me for my experience and way with words; it should never be about stroking a writer’s fragile ego. I’ve said it ad nauseum: Just because you’ve published a book doesn’t mean you’re any good at writing.

I’d rather a writer took a peek at my finished review with creeping dread than complacency, to be honest. At least when I say I loved your book, I loved your book. Want someone to pinch your cheek with a who’s a good boy?

You must have an aunt somewhere.

I use some of the standard verbiage to get myself blurbed on your dust jackets. OKAY. YOU CAUGHT ME. I am vain and like to see myself quoted. But, in spirit, if I say I liked the book I liked the book. It may not truly have been a Dickensian epic with a Kafkaesque twist, lyrical and soaring like Emily Dickinson cradled by angel’s wings, but I didn’t begrudge the time I spent reading then expressing how I felt about it.

(I threw up a bit writing that, FWIW.)

Formulaic reviewing is a torture. Give me this many syllables about this, that many syllables about the other, and, if I don’t like it, I will completely twist the meaning of your words and make you type out my edits before I send the check.

Fuck. That.

Formulaic reviewing killed the piece of my soul I believed I could live without. It set me back months, but taught me an invaluable lesson. Ironic I regained equilibrium in the middle of a pandemic, but if that’s the biggest positive I take out of this nightmare, you know what?

I’m good with that.

Journal of the Plague Year, Heartbreak Edition

Raise your hand if you’ve had quite enough of all this nonsense. I keep waiting for an official to pop up and yell, “Simulation finished! You’ve all failed, you worthless bastards.”

Eh? Still waiting.

Here in Illinois we’ve been sheltering in place since around March 21, me going hermit a week before, because I am just cool enough to be ahead of the trend.

Thanks to constant CNN exposure, I was, frankly, terrified those first couple of weeks. I watched the death toll mount online. There’s a site that breaks it all down: country by country, infection to death ratios, rate of recovery. If you don’t know where that’s found, I will not tell you.

You don’t need that. I didn’t need that.

Despite my introversion, I was horrified being alone an indefinite period of time. I missed my boyfriend, didn’t know when or if I’d see him again. Missed my kids. Worried about all my friends and co-workers – which of us would be dead within the month, because the world was clearly out to kill us.

In a twisted, cruel joke, I’d be broken up with the boyfriend before long. DURING A PANDEMIC. Enraged he showed no concern for me, offered no assistance despite knowing I was riding it out alone, I fired off an angry missive.

Hindsight being what it is, I know that was wrong. Pressure on him was intense, from several life situations. Normally laid-back, he was scared. This was not him, not his way.

But I was alone, scared, furious he did not acknowledge that. I asked him about every, single thing in his life I knew had gone to hell. Every, single thing. I fretted if he had enough food. For my last forage, I bought provisions I intended to drop at his door, along with food for myself. Then I felt stupid about that, about coddling a grown man, and took it all home.

So much food, by the way. So, so much food.

This sort of passive-aggression was the hallmark of our relationship, as it had been during my failed marriage, as well. I can see that now. My passive-aggression, his avoidance of his share of the blame, and refusal to sit down and work out solutions.

Ultimately, it brought down our relationship.

I wonder, now, if his inability to balance priorities killed his marriage. A wife who strayed, leaving him bleeding out in pain, may have done so because her husband was absent when she needed him. And someone else was. Because he can be a delight, a ball of energy that’s irresistible. He’s impossible not to love but all that’s moot when you don’t bother showing up.

Patterns tend to repeat, personality traits to become ingrained, until you find the strength of mind to change them. I hadn’t grown past passive-aggression. Maybe he hadn’t learned where his priorities should lie.

Oh, that makes so much sense now.

I was clearly not a priority in his life, when I should have been. What’s the point of a relationship, otherwise? If I’d been practicing proper self care I’d have seen the writing on the wall much sooner.

For his part, he kept a part of himself walled off to me, a defense mechanism I’m totally familiar with. But in this relationship, I spilled it all out there. He encouraged it, said tell me everything.

I complied, but did so badly. In retaliation, he cut me off, refused to respond. Next time I saw him I braced for confrontation. None came. I’ve forgotten it, he’d say. No worries.

Big worries. Avoidance is insidious.

Thing is, when we were together it was magic. We had fun, meshed seamlessly, laughing and basking in the glow of love. This was a relationship worth fighting for, but the cracks in the foundation would be our downfall.

Around month three or four, knowing he was THE ONE from the first date, I asked his relationship goals. I told him mine were to live together one day, to work toward that because everything we had was so wonderful I wanted that full-time. He agreed, said he’d already been thinking that.

I was elated.

Just past our one-year anniversary, we were breaking up by phone DURING A PANDEMIC. The dam broke; he spewed out vitriol he’d held in. He’d been lying, he said. He never wanted to live with anyone, including me. He’d fallen out of love, but had kept saying I love you I love you I love you. Scary how accomplished he’d been in his fakery, how convincing.

He left me bleeding out the way his wife had left him. Karma gone awry.

I never knew. Didn’t have a clue. I should have. If you love someone, you prioritize them. I was the one always in pursuit, the one who sent thinking of you texts. He was the beloved. I adored him, nearly worshipped. It was not healthy.

I knew where I rated, but brushed it off saying he has this avocation he’s passionate about, a worthy one. Of course he spends lots of his free time on it.

All his free time.

Obsessively.

He forgot plans, didn’t communicate when he was actually busy on days we’d earmarked as “us” days – Saturdays from dinner through Sunday mornings. I’d sit there, waiting. Because when you make a promise to someone you love, you keep that promise. And if you can’t, you communicate.

Except when you don’t.

Usually he did, but sometimes he didn’t.

He’s hurting you, my friends said. Break it off. Find someone who prioritizes you the way you deserve to be.

But I love him, you don’t know his good qualities.

Oh, they said, you’ve told us those. We’ve seen them. But it’s how he treats you that matters. And you are hurt.

So it went on.

One of the spiteful things he flung out while we were breaking up – on the phone, DURING A PANDEMIC – was “you get in the way of me doing things I enjoy.” My very existence was an irritation to him, see above. It was obvious. I knew it but counted on the day we’d live together. I wouldn’t have to miss him then.

Properly broken up, in desperation I joined a dating site. The void was too great, too painful. You cannot replace one person with another, especially when the cut’s still bleeding, but I planned to try.

One day his face popped up, on the same site. In my head I heard “I don’t have time for you.”

Apparently, he had time for someone else.

I was pierced through, firing off an angry text. You lied, again. He didn’t address the issue, choosing instead to ignore that and say I could change the narrative to suit myself all I wanted, if that made me happy.

Deflection. He’s great at that.

Oh, what a tangled web.

I mourn the exterior of that relationship. I miss the camaraderie, the fun and what looked like genuine love on the outside. You seemed to enjoy each other’s company, said my son. We did. But the relationship rotted from the inside.

We fiddled while Rome burned.

I don’t wish him well, to be honest. Not yet. I wish him a rebound relationship that rips him to shreds, an awakening to everything he did on his part that sunk us.

I wish that smugness wiped off his face.

It’s not pretty. It’s not a charitable reaction. But it’s honest.

Of all the things I did, and the list is long enough, I never once lied.

Not once.

Until and unless he wakes up to the work relationships take, he’ll do the same thing over and over.

Karma rolls, baby. Its justice is blind.

Until and unless I drop my repression of emotion, and find someone who prioritizes us enough to let down his guard, I’ll repeat over and over.

I own that. I am not sure his hubris will allow the same luxury.

I’ve achieved a degree of peace. While I’d love to lash out again, telling him my suspicion behind the demise of his marriage, I’ll let that slide.

It has to end somewhere.

It’s here.

Pande-monium

Takes a pandemic to propel me back to blogging, apparently.

My mind had been on it prior to that, but disaster provides strong motivation to reach out. I’d have posted sooner, like two weeks ago when it began, only the practicalities of turning your life upside down pretty much overnight take one hell of a lot of time and energy.

Finding yourself tired all the time? I’m exhausted. I sleep like an angel at night, but the emotional impact of all this drains every ounce of energy. I don’t doubt you feel that, too.

I’ve been posting semi-regular daily journal entries on Facebook for the consumption of friends and family, then realized that’s not the best medium for more complex thoughts. Bluestalking’s been sitting idle a long while, waiting for me to make up my mind what to do with it. I’d rather it hadn’t taken a global crisis to nudge me back toward writing.

Thanks, but no thanks, COVID-19.

Writer’s block, a thing I’ve rolled my eyes at basically forever, hit me with a vengeance several months ago. I quit reviewing, keeping a journal, even reading. Moving away, in spitting distance of where I’d spent nearly 30 years of my life but far away in terms of culture, provoked such fear and panic and I can’t tell you why. I left the country with less anxiety – TWICE.

I lost touch with myself. It manifested itself in out-sized anxiety I struggled to control, succeeding by virtue of digging my fingernails into the ledge I nearly dropped from. The place I moved is packed with character, the apartment charming as hell, and the diversity of the area far removed from my blindingly white former home.

But I kind of fell apart.

Coming back to writing and reading will, I’m hoping, return me to myself.

I know no one who’s had COVID-19, or even knows anyone who’s fallen victim. Counting myself lucky on that score. Also fortunate my occupation allows me to work from home; I have a regular salary from a company that’s thriving – actually hiring in the midst of this dystopian nightmare, and full benefit of health insurance.

My pantries are so full, if pressed I could stay in place at least a couple of months – though, Christ, I hope it won’t be that long. I lack for nothing, save face to face contact with those I love, though that’s a huge, yawning gap. I’m thankful for video chatting. There’s that.

The State of Illinois has been under a shelter-in-place order a week now, and I abide by that strictly, leaving home only to pick up medication, so far. When I need eventually need groceries, I’ll either order for pick up or have them delivered.

Again, I’m fortunate.

But tired, and struggling to wriggle back into my skin. Pandemics just don’t show up at convenient times, do they?

We are in this together, and what we make of this time will define how future generations judge us, looking back. I, for one, want to be able to look at my future grandchildren and say I more than got through this. Not just “I learned 100 ways to cook beans,” but “I accomplished a thing” – then tell them about it.

We will get through this.

Summer’s end with Colson Whitehead and Chigozie Obioma: with bonus life update!


Books mentioned in this post:

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead


Insert pithy phrase here about how the summer’s escaped while I was (mostly) busy with other things, because the summer’s escaped while I was (mostly) busy with other things. That’s what happens when you’re a contributing member of society, constrained by the necessity of full-time, gainful employment in order to live indoors and eat something you don’t also feed your cat. Life sneaks by when you’re not looking. Feels like yesterday I was buying patio furniture and flowers, tacking up patio lights and mixing margaritas. All of a sudden it’s getting dark at 7:30, temperatures are dipping into the high 60s at night, and a few leaves are already starting to change.

When the hell did that happen?

I can’t turn my back anymore without something running amok. How can I be expected to carry the lot of you, merely one woman as I am? We’re going to need to form committees. I don’t see any way around it. First call will be for volunteers. After that, a general election between candidates personally chosen by moi.

I tried laissez-faire, and look where that got us.

May 2019 – when lilacs last by the patio blooomed

It’s been a hot summer, a thing I revile, at the same time acknowledging I also despise and dread winter. The greater Chicago metropolitan area offers great weather roughly three days a year. I spend the remaining 362 indoors, sucking in canned air like a freshly-charged Dyson. I am a delicate flower, suited to climate control. You know, like a rare orchid. Or dandelion.

I put the hor in horticulture.

I’ve been busy supporting the publishing industry while the rest of you were out gallumphing through state parks, eating meat on sticks and corn on cobs, watching fireworks and scratching mysterious rashes. That’s a really cute picture of you and your grumpy kids at Old Faithful, but shouldn’t you use this last unofficial weekend of summer to pitch a tent or roast something?

Pssst … The outdoorsy people are gone. It’s just us; I’ll close the blinds.

Gather ’round!


From the Booker Prize longlist: An Orchestra of Minorities


Of course I ordered a few of the Booker longlisted titles, but so far I’ve managed to read just one. When I say “just,” I mean just give him the damn prize.

The book’s that good. If any of the others can surpass it, I’ll be shocked.



“He had joined many others ….all who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilizations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed, killed. With all these people , he’d come to share a common fate, they were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join the universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.” 

An Orchestra of Minorities

Narrated by the “chi,” or life force, of Nigerian chicken farmer Chinonoso, An Orchestra of Minorities begins and ends with a woman named Ndali facing down her own mortality. Catching her preparing to jump off a bridge at the beginning of the story, Chinonoso rushes to intervene.

Months later, stunned by the grace and beauty he’d understandably missed in the frenzy of their first meeting, he falls madly in love. Only, he’s a poor chicken farmer, Ndali a wealthy and well-educated young woman on her way to becoming a successful pharmacist.

Her parents are adamant: their daughter will not marry this man.

Together, Chinonoso and Ndali are halves of a whole. Raised in a house of privilege, Ndali throws herself into Chinonoso’s world as if she’d never known luxury. Still intent on earning her degree, she sees no reason they cannot be together. Still, Chinonoso’s pride is hurt. An intelligent man, he’d given up prospects for further education when he took over the farm from his ailing father.

Desperate to convince her disdainful family he’s capable of greater things, Chinonoso leaves his native Nigeria – and a bereft Ndali – for the promise of affordable education in Cyprus. Trusting a childhood friend to transfer tuition money to the university and secure housing, before Chinonoso arrives he realizes he’s been duped. A subsequent arrest for a crime he didn’t commit keeps him stuck in a Cyprus prison for years. By the time he arrives home, he’s no longer the man he was. His whole world is gone.

An Orchestra of Minorities lacerates the heart mercilessly. It’s about love and hope, betrayal and loss and revenge. Breathtaking.


Having less luck with Colson Whitehead’s latest, The Nickel Boys, I’m considering ditching it. It’s surprising and a bit saddening. With great faith in his well-earned reputation and the appealing premise, I curled up with it on a Friday evening expecting a rave review by Saturday. I set it aside past the halfway point, underwhelmed.



I reviewed his zombie apocalypse novel Zone One for BookBrowse back in 2011 and loved it. His 2016 blockbuster The Underground Railroad went stratospheric, winning the Pulitzer, NBA and Carnegie Medal for Excellence, even securing a place on the Man Booker longlist. All critical opinions and most reader reviews rave; it’s my sense it’s deserved.

Take out your calendars and note I said ‘I could be wrong about that’ on this date, because that doesn’t happen often.

But I don’t think so.

Holding off on TUR, I thought I’d pick it up after Nickel Boys inevitably blew me away, having myself a little Colson Whitehead binge. That would be called poor judgment, y’all. Nickel Boys is short, but manages to plod. Unforgivable in a new writer, from a seasoned one it’s far worse.

It’s obvious what happened: The Underground Railroad was SO big, SO unique and attention-grabbing the expectation of excellence was untenable. Turning out two stellar books within a couple of years is an unreasonable expectation. He had a great idea, but rushed the execution. In an attempt to keep hold of it and finish in the shortest amount of time, he played it safe. Way too safe, in prose lacking his familiar stylistic grace.

We love Colson Whitehead. He’s a fantastic writer, a quality human being, charismatic and badass as all hell. But The Nickel Boys is not a bravura follow-up.

Just to be sure, I’ll take a dip back into it. I don’t think it will change my mind, but I’m fond of him. I’d love to be wrong this time.

Because BADASS.


Colson Whitehead, badass

It was an excellent summer. The very best. My passport stayed in the drawer, and I didn’t stray further than a few hours away. For the first time in what feels like forever, that was more than fine.

In early July, my daughter married her partner. A Very Big Deal, in the form of a courthouse wedding. Thrilled for the both of them, even if it does make me a mother-in-law.

Oh dear god, I’m a mother-in-law.

I spent much of my available time getting to know the Well-Beloved. Partnering at mid-life is so different, it takes some getting used to. When you’re young, starting a relationship brings two worlds together. After marriage and kids and decades building a life, it’s more like two separate galaxies, around each of us the various solar systems of friends and family and life experience.

It can feel a bit overwhelming, but the alternative is having no separate lives, no interests and experiences of our own. That would be unsustainable. You don’t hit middle age with no track record. So you take it as it comes, enjoying the good and working through the bumps.

But that summer sure did fly, didn’t it?


In Memorium: Taffy Guidarini

February 2005 – August 2019

You were the very best girl.

Review: More Than We Bargained for by John Stefanini

Originally published in Foreword Reviews:

MORE THAN WE BARGAINED FOR

AN UNTOLD STORY OF EXPLOITATION, REDEMPTION, AND THE MEN WHO BUILT A WORKER’S EMPIRE

John Stefanini 
Sutherland House (Sep 4, 2019)
Hardcover $29.95 (268pp)
978-1-9994395-3-8

Clarion Rating: 5 out of 5

More than We Bargained For is an enthralling immigrant’s story about overcoming adversity.

John Stefanini’s memoir More than We Bargained For tells a hopeful story of emigration from post-WWII Italy to Canada in the late 1950s, concentrating on Stefanini’s pivotal role as a union organizer and activist in the manufacturing and construction industries.

Stefanini arrived in Toronto in 1959, speaking little English. The job he obtained as a plasterer awoke him to the fact that his fellow immigrants, especially those employed in related fields of manufacturing and construction, endured unsafe working conditions without access to affordable healthcare. Determined to make a difference, Stefanini joined a labor union. Over the course of decades, he proved to be a tough but fair negotiator who lobbied businesses and politicians to assure better wages and safer environments, bringing about positive change for workers in Canada.

Stefanini’s work also examines the influence of immigrants in a positive light, particularly in regard to their role in nation building in post-WWII North America. Reminiscing about his earlier experiences, he identifies with the plight of such invariably poor and vulnerable people, showing how they made long journeys across oceans and found assimilation difficult due to language barriers. Enthusiastic support for immigrants is apparent in accounts of Stefanini’s tireless union work, as well as his assertion that immigrants’ successes contributed much to the economy and infrastructure of Canada.

Addressing the less savory side of activism, the book does not shy away from examining the fact labor strikes occasionally led to violence. In frank language, it describes Stefanini’s frustration over his own imprisonment following a volatile altercation between union and non-union members. The experience becomes a way to delve into inadequacies of the judicial system of Canada, as does Stefanini’s explanation of how his confusion about the actual length of his sentence led to an extended incarceration—yet another challenge to be overcome.

The straight, linear narrative is journalistic in style, putting Stefanini’s story into historical context through painstaking examinations of the political climate of the time and naming key players in the unions, corporations, and governments of Canada and the United States. It doubles as a researched history of labor unions in North America, backed up with references to other works about the struggles of Italian immigrants during Stefanini’s years of activism.

Important for its statement on the positive impact one man can have in advancing a social movement, More than We Bargained For is an enthralling immigrant’s story about overcoming adversity.

Reviewed by Lisa Guidarini 
July 23, 2019

Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The author of this book provided free copies of the book and paid a small fee to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. Foreword Reviews and Clarion Reviews make no guarantee that the author will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

From Philip Roth’s home to mine: on buying a piece of his estate

Since reading Portnoy’s Complaint sometime back in the 90s, I’ve never been a Philip Roth fan. But tell me he’s dead and they’re selling his stuff, and I’m all over it.

I blame it on Twitter: specifically, author and Chicago Tribune “Biblioracle” columnist John Warner, who, on that fateful day, tweeted he’d won an auction for Philip Roth’s alarm clock.

Wait. What?

It was Saturday, July 20. I work part days on Saturdays, and to stave off the boredom and resentment I always have my phone next to me, left hand scrolling Facebook and Twitter limitlessly. Running bang up against John’s tweet, I grabbed the URL for the Roth estate auction.

Ebay made up the entirety of my previous auction experience. I used to drop in once in a while, to snap up old Penguin paperback editions and the occasional oddity, like a postcard from the town in the Netherlands where my family hailed from — hey, big spender.

Litchfield County Auctions is the real deal, where the rich go to pick up Persian rugs and Chippendale armoires. I felt like someone’s hick relative in overalls, sucking on a piece of straw. But such is the beauty of the internet: “belonging” there only means I haven’t reached the limit on my credit card.

It was phenomenal, like someone had taken Roth’s house just as he’d left it, turned it on its side and shook every, single damn thing out. You name it, they sold it. There were ratty old afghans, lamps and tables, fine collectible Chinese vases and figurines, paintings and so many silver pieces. So many.

As it was a live auction, all I had to do was shove my credit card information at them, watching as each item came up and bidding commenced. While some things went for tens of thousands, a few bits and bobs, I noticed, were quite affordable. Tentatively, I hit the bid button for a couple vases. When they rose too high for my blood, I went on to a Chinese figurine. Unwilling to chase it over $ 100, I scrolled ahead to upcoming items.

Then I saw it: a Chinese reverse painting on glass.

I had only the vaguest idea what “reverse painting” meant, but it was lovely and the estimated sale price was in the range I was willing to spend. I watched as one person bid, then another. It wasn’t getting a lot of attention; I held my breath. When last call!, then final warning!!! popped up I swooped in and bid as the gavel came down.

I imagined the glowing face of the high bidder as the auctioneer was ready to call it, mentally measuring out the place he’d hang it next to the fireplace, his new “Roth niche.”

Then, BAM!

“You’ve been outbid, sucker!”

All’s fair in love and auctions.


My impression of Roth’s writing, aside from the narrow scope of my experience with Portnoy, was that he’s a man’s writer. And when I say man’s writer, I’m staring squarely at Ernest Hemingway — poster boy for excess testosterone. Not that I imagine the scholarly Jewish writer had a penchant for big game hunting, nor that he regularly got toasted and ripped off his shirt in his editor’s office, as Hemingway was wont to do.

Roth was a bit more restrained. Just a tad.

Fairly or not (probably not), judging him solely based on a novel about a young man’s obsession with masturbation, I’ve always believed he’s a writer obsessed with sex.

Before you start going all feminist on me, I know full well women have written about sex. I have no issue with that, but, to my knowledge, none have done so quite so famously as Roth, at least not on the topic of young men and masturbation. And I’m not only not interested in young men and masturbation, I actively avoid it.

Perhaps I should use the word masturbation one more time in this post, what do you think.


Hey there, fella. You’re one magnificent bastard.

Since the Roth item arrived, I’ve begun researching his life and work, reading reviews and watching interviews on YouTube. Though it pains me to say it, I may have rushed to judgment. Philip Roth wrote some 30ish novels. The more I read, the more it behooves me to investigate him further before making up my mind he’s not my thing, if for no other reason than I own one small piece of his estate.

That I bought on impulse. Because Twitter made me.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely Chinese reverse painting on glass I need to hang in my Philip Roth niche. I don’t have a fireplace, but I do have an Ikea dresser. Chippendale it ain’t, but what did we decide about “belonging”?

It’s all about having room on your credit card.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: brief thoughts


An American Marriage

Algonquin, Feb 2018

A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.” 


― Tayari Jones, An American Marriage

Almost without exception, uber-popular novels disappoint me. An American Marriage kicked up so much pre-pub fuss I could see the dust swirling on the horizon as it galloped for town. Each review more laudatory than the last, by the time it hit the shelves I had to wear goggles to keep out the flying debris. When it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, that was the final straw.

Reader, I caved.

And I wasn’t blown away.

I’ve never differed from my favorite critic before. I do mean never. Ron Charles from The Washington Post is my go-to, the reviewer I trust not to kiss author ass when the rest of the world has puckered up. He praised An American Marriage. That is no small thing.

His opinions are the gospel according to St. Ron:


“Compelling . . . spun with tender patience by Jones, who cradles each of these characters in a story that pulls our sympathies in different directions. She never ignores their flaws, their perfectly human tendency toward self-justification, but she also captures their longing to be kind, to be just, to somehow behave well despite the contradictory desires of the heart.”

—Ron Charles, Washington Post


There’s a formula to hitting that blockbuster sweet spot, a tipping point at which all the review outlets are throwing out exclamation points and trite phrases like a BOGO sale. An American Marriage hit that mark. That’s why I steered clear as long as I did.

At the outset, I loved the book. Lyrically written and initially gripping, it sucked me right in. I thought to myself, here’s the rare exception to my rule about popular books. Beginning on the Friday of a long weekend I knew had to myself, since The Well-Beloved was otherwise engaged, I saw ahead of me 48 hours of reading bliss that didn’t quite materialize.

If you haven’t read it, the book is about a young couple struggling to hold their marriage together after the husband has been wrongfully jailed for assault. Celestial and Roy are still adjusting to married life when he’s convicted and sentenced to prison. Until his appeals are exhausted, the hope he’ll be freed is enough to maintain the bond. Once that’s lost, a yawning gulf opens, leaving just enough room for Andre, the friend who’s loved Celestial from childhood, to declare himself. The two fall in love.

When new evidence proves Roy’s innocence, he’s set free. Life being life, the struggle to right the balance is fraught. I won’t tell you how it ends, but you can imagine the hellish ride. There are a few well-executed subplots, but I won’t go into those. This isn’t a proper review.

A couple things stand between me and loving this book. First, what Ron Charles praises as “tender patience” was, to me, pacing that slowed to a crawl. Somewhere around halfway I put the book down. Wanting to know how it ended, but not thrilled with the knowledge that meant I’d have to finish reading it, I thought about googling for spoilers. I didn’t, deciding instead to plow through.

It’s just not tight enough. I love taut writing, extremely spare prose, and it’s the writer’s job to keep me gripped. Lyricism has its place, but Jones is an over-writer. She relies far too heavily on similes, and that grates. Her penchant for ending paragraphs with a flowery flourish yanked me out of the tale. This was the second stumbling block.

It was like trying to read attached to a bungee cord.

There’s much to admire in the book. For me, the drawbacks prevented me from falling in love. If there’s an upside, at least my disappointment with popular books remains unsullied.

Still, Ron Charles. Now that hurts. Not loving the book is one thing. The discomfort of disagreeing with The Critic is quite another.

I’m going to lick my wounds. I may be a while.

How I single-handedly destroyed book reviewing. Or not.


Bluestalking has served as a portfolio of sorts, initially the humble offering stretched out to publicists when begging review copies, before I had actual publishing credentials. I needed proof I had a platform, and readers who dropped by to listen to me yammer about books, so other publishers would give me more books.

Circle of life.

That’s how early bloggers leveraged their experience to branch out and write for other venues. There weren’t that many of us back in 2006, not like today, when countless cool kids are vlogging and podcasting and going all Facebook live. We reviewed the old fashioned way, in actual typewritten prose. And we liked it.

Instagram? YouTube? Try Blogspot and Blogger — Typepad if you could afford the subscription, then WordPress, once you figured out how to migrate your posts and navigate their platform.


At present, the only book-review videocast that’s widely available is the Washington Post’s The Totally Hip Video Book Review featuring Ron Charles. Charles, the regular fiction critic of Post, writes sincere, uninspiring reviews. The success of the videocast is Charles’s ability to laugh at himself. The episodes are, of course, totally unhip but charming nonetheless.

– Sarah Fay, “Could the Internet Save Book Reviews?”, The Atlantic, May 7, 2012


Get off my damn lawn, lousy millennials. You and your fancily composed tableaux of books, coffee with pretty designs carved in the foam – how do you even have the time? We downloaded cover photos from Amazon.

Guess what? We liked that, too

There used to be websites tracking book blogger rankings. If you dropped your guard your nemesis would sideswipe you, sending you skidding into the tires like an even nerdier version of Mario Kart. Amazon was brand new and already becoming a review site superpower, bloggers an extension of their reach. We became the first top Amazon reviewers just by showing up. Try accomplishing that now.

Try it, punk.


the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there 
are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.

– George Orwell, Confessions of a Book Reviewer”



Upstarts like me were yelled at by literary critics of stature, academics bloviating about the ways we were ruining everything, taking their jobs by undercutting them. We weren’t specialized, had no idea what we were talking about. We were not professionals.

It’s funny to me now just how much that pissed me off at the time. Sitting in my living room in 2019, I’m frankly flattered they even noticed. It’s like getting a no thanks note from The New York Times. Usually they just ignore you; embrace the rejection.


– Dorothy Parker, book critic, The New Yorker

John Sutherland lead the crusade, positively apoplectic the great unwashed civilian book reviewers put ourselves out there — worse, that readers were responding. After one particularly insulting article I sniped back at him, though I wasn’t his primary target. On behalf of those without specific educational credentials, I felt personally affronted by his elitism. The purpose of reviews is to sell books, I told him. If you don’t sell the books, no one reads them. If no one reads them, his job was rendered moot.

As for reviewers on Amazon, why did you need a doctorate to have an opinion? He engaged me briefly, then crawled back inside his ivory tower.

It was awesome.


Nothing stands still on the web. There is emerging, on Amazon, a corps of regular ‘reviewers’, so called, trusted to kick up dust and move books. Dinahbitching is becoming institutionalised.

Why do the web-reviewers allow themselves to be recruited as unpaid hacks? Partly for freebies. But more because they enjoy shooting off their mouths. And they enjoy the power.

– the Guardian, 19 November 2006, “John Sutherland is SHOCKED by the state of book reviewing on the web”


“THE POWER!” We were mad with it: a vast conspiracy, one small step below the moon landing.

Knowing how it panned out, I can look back with a lot more empathy. His huffing and puffing appeared reactionary, half annoying and half amusing, but turns out the dude wasn’t wearing an aluminum foil hat. His fears were not misplaced.

Overall, the market for writing about books and literature has atrophied almost to distinction, comparatively speaking. Most national papers have cut books sections, those that remain no longer plump and healthy. A large percentage of literary journals have either gone belly up or migrated exclusively online, printing costs skyrocketing past the point of affordability.

It pains me to admit John Sutherland had a point.

Writing in the literary field is not a viable career path; it’s been decimated. If you’re still undeterred, you better be prepared to violently elbow other writers in the ribs and push some prams in front of speeding busses. Respect to the strugglers, but this is why I’m not quitting my day job.

Fair warning: I’d still keep an eye on that pram, not gonna lie.

The internet opened up writing and reviewing to the masses, and when publishing professionals saw that they swooped in. Given a choice between paying an exorbitant wage to an established writer or giving away a few books to popular blogger/reviewers, which do you suppose a financially-strapped publisher would choose?



Word of mouth isn’t so easily separable from book reviews. What is a good review from Michiko Kakutani but a recommendation directly from a reader to hundreds of thousands of her closest non-friends? As with word of mouth, it’s tough to measure the impact of a glowing review on sales numbers. Still, one study showed that reviews do influence libraries’ purchasing choices. Another suggested that New York Times reviews swayed sales. In 2010, GoodReads pulled charts showing massive spikes in certain books’ activity after the books were reviewed or recommended on major platforms.

-Claire Fallon, Book Critics Don’t Exist to Flatter Your Taste” HuffPo, Nov. 25, 2015

Once through the door, a lot of talented people took advantage of the opportunity and carried it further. That’s called opportunity, and it’s no bad thing.

Are book bloggers responsible for the partial collapse of formal criticism? I still say no: the two markets are very distinct. Everything we’re seeing was inevitable following the explosion of the internet. It would have happened without us.



New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani steps down to write a book about Donald Trump


The arts aren’t immune to rules of supply and demand. When the walls came down, canny writers with drive were able to break into the old boys’ club, throwing their legs over a few wingbacks and grabbing handfuls of Cubans. But maybe this lot of mostly old, white men had grown too complacent. Maybe writing about literature needed an injection of fresh blood.

Shaking things up every few hundred years is no bad thing. A little scary, granted, but necessary for growth.

Blogging opened a lot of doors I’d never have found on my own. I’m still not published in Harper’s, but it’s paid off far beyond the time I’ve invested. There’s more I could be doing, but work-life-avocation balance is a consideration. And I’m not quite dead yet. I nominate myself as one of the top thousand-ish writers to watch under 60.

DON’T BLINK.

I appreciate the opportunity afforded to writers by the grace of the internet. It’s not all good or fair, but was it before? It’s a damn sight more accessible, this I know. It’s also dynamic, still in transition. When I revisit this in another 15 years, who knows?

The exciting part is it’s completely unpredictable; it will never, ever grow stale. As long as there are markets I can barge into, and ribs to elbow, I’m happy taking the good right along with the bad.


Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter

28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943

We know her as the creator of Peter Rabbit, but Helen Beatrix Potter was also a talented illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist.

Life-long lovers of animals, as children she and her brother Bertram – who grew up to become an artist in his own right – kept a menagerie ranging from mice to bats to hedgehogs to – no surprise – rabbits. The two were sheltered growing up, only each other as playmates, educated at home by governesses. Similar to the Brontë children in their insularity breeding expressions of creativity, the two spent summer holidays at Dalguise House (Perthshire) in Scotland and, later, the Lake District of England (Cumbria).

Dalguise House, Perthshire, Scotland.

Fascinated by the natural world, they happily sketched and scribbled alongside their artistically gifted parents.

Origin of Peter Rabbit, letter to Noel Moore, 1893.
Noel Moore.

Though not published in book form until the early 1900s, Peter Rabbit’s origin lies in letters written from Potter to the children of her former governess, Annie Carter Moore. The letters began when Annie’s son, Noel, was recovering from scarlet fever. To cheer him, Beatrix sent a story based on a rabbit she’d had as a child, a Belgian buck called Peter Piper.

Many more “picture letters” followed, telling the adventures of Peter and friends. Annie Moore suggested Beatrix put the stories in book form for publication. Twenty-three books later, the Tales of Peter Rabbit were complete.

Despite the fact so much of her life was devoted to children’s literature, Beatrix and her husband had no children. She was, however, a doting aunt, as well as godmother to Beatrix Moore, daughter of Annie.

“If I have done anything, even a little, to help small children enjoy honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good.” 

– Beatrix Potter

A few more interesting bits about Beatrix Potter:

  1. The inspiration for her characters unknown, in 2001 the names Nutkins, McGregor, Peter Rabbett and Jeremiah Fisher were discovered in burial records for Brompton Cemetery, London – the city where Potter grew up. Sounds like more than a coincidence, doesn’t it, especially considering she lived only a short walk away from 1863 – 1913.

Grave of Susannah Nutkins.

2. As a child, budding artist Beatrix was taken by her father to the Natural History Museum in London, as well as the Victoria & Albert, where she practiced sketching.

Accurately detailed watercolors of fungi made her well-respected in the world of mycology, and she created paintings of other flora and fauna, as well. Not content with just drawing them, Potter educated herself in the ways mushrooms reproduced, even conducting her own experiments. What stopped her from pursuing her interest further was the fact women were barred from scientific societies.

Who knows what she’d have achieved in the scientific world.

Lepitoa procera (Armitt Museum and Library) by Beatrix Potter
Drawings of caterpillars by Beatrix Potter, V&A, London

3. Previously rejecting her manuscript, Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish a trade edition of Peter Rabbit in 1902. By the end of the year the book had sold 28,000 copies.

Other children’s literature published that year included: L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, Kipling’s Just So Stories and E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It.

Norman Warne, son of publisher Frederick and also Beatrix’s editor, became smitten by the writer after an increasingly flirtatious exchange of letters about characters from her book Two Bad Mice. Upon their engagement, her parents objected saying Norman Warne was not her social equal. She defied them but, sadly, Warne died unexpectedly of undiagnosed leukemia before they could marry.

Out of town when he died, Beatrix didn’t make it back in time for the funeral. He was 37.

The 2006 film Miss Potter tells the sad story of Beatrix and Norman Warne. Writing about Beatrix Potter’s love of him, Sara Glenn, curator of the Warne archives states:

“Reading Beatrix’s letters, I was surprised to find that her love for Norman never died. We think of Beatrix Potter as a strong, private woman, but these letters show her intense loneliness.”

Norman Warne and his nephew Fred, ca. 1900

Having dreamt of sharing her life with Norman at Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in the Lake District, Beatrix purchased the house and land the autumn after his death.

The flowers love the house, they try to come in. … but nothing more sweet than the old pink cabbage rose that peeps in at the small paned windows.

– Beatrix Potter, on Hill Top Farm

Ironically, Beatrix’s brother Bertram made a match that would have horrified his parents, as well, marrying Mary Welsh Scott, a former mill worker. He was astute (and confoundingly clever) enough to keep the union secret for a decade.

His father’s response when his son finally told him of his marriage? He wrote Bertram out of his will.

Difficult to like that man, isn’t it.

Beatrix, Bertram and doggo Potter.

4. Later in life, as president of the Herdwick sheep association she won prizes for Herdwick ewes at shows around Cumbria. Upon her death she bequeathed 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, for the express purpose of sheep grazing.

Beatrix and shepherd Tom Storey, with one of her favorite Herdwick ewes, Water Lily.
Herdwick ewes!

5. On 13 October 1913, Beatrix Potter married William Heelis, a property attorney who helped her purchase land in the Lake District of England, located within the county of Cumbria, on which she would raise her beloved sheep.

In their 70s at the time of their engagement, her parents didn’t approve of this match, either. Beatrix and William married despite them, and by all accounts were happy.

Take that, mum and dad.

Beatrix Potter and William Heelis

6. Potter’s father, Rupert William Potter, was an amateur photographer and sketch artist specializing in portraits and landscapes. Photographs provided to his friend, noted landscape painter John Everett Millais, served as inspiration for the famous artist’s work. He also took photos of Millais’s sitters and portaits, which the painter used to aid him.

Though educated as a barrister, a fortune inherited from his father Edmund’s business, Dinting Vale Calico Printing Works , meant he never had to practice.

The Lake District, photo by Rupert Potter.

It was inherited money that made Beatrix’s father feel she was too good for any man. Not land and titles, but her grandfather’s inventiveness in mechanizing the manufacture of previously handmade, labor-intensive calico. Edmund Potter also believed in education for all, building the Logwood Mill School and providing a reading room and library for his factory workers.

Beatrix Potter and Alice Crompton Potter by Rupert William Potter

7. Her mother, Helen Leech Potter, was likewise no slouch as an artist.

Hilltop, Cumbria by Helen Leech Potter
Helen Leech and Beatrix Potter

Helen also kept a scrapbook of cards sent to her daughter from various relatives and friends of the Potter family, compiled between 1872 and 1878 – an invaluable collection of ephemera relating to a beloved writer.

8. Beginning at age 14, Beatrix Potter kept a coded journal. It would not be decoded until Leslie Linder, a superfan of the author who later donated an extensive collection of materials by and about the writer to the V&A Museum, cracked the code after 13 long years.

In 1966, the journal was published for the first time by Frederick Warne Ltd, the same company that had published Peter Rabbit decades ago.

Potter’s diary is full of hints at her future as an artist and writer. “I can’t settle to anything but my painting, I lost my patience over everything else,” she wrote at the end of one particularly agitated page. Plenty of entries close with the name of a book she had recently finished, or contain one of her signature, detailed, occasionally brutal art reviews.

Atlas Obscura

I admit I didn’t have much interest in Beatrix Potter until I read the dozen or so articles and online sources from which I extracted information for this post. Though we had a miniature set of the Tales of Peter Rabbit when my kids were small, the stories were too slow-moving for them.

I couldn’t have imagined she led such a fascinating life, and there are loads of books about her. I recommend you visit Amazon to check them out.

Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter.

The Porpoise: A Novel by Mark Haddon

Originally published New York Journal of Books

The Porpoise: A Novel

Image of The Porpoise: A Novel

Author(s): Mark HaddonRelease Date: June 18, 2019Publisher/Imprint: DoubledayPages: 320Buy on Amazon         Reviewed by: Lisa Guidarini

“The writing is brilliant, building from a deceptively plain beginning few paragraphs to sophisticated prose that leaps off the page.”

Weaving a horrifying modern tale of a father’s obsessive, increasingly perverted love for his daughter into a parallel retelling of the ancient legend of King Antiochus, Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise is unrelentingly grim, an uncomfortable read.

Losing his wife Maja in a horrific plane crash caused by an amateur pilot’s bravado, Philippe is catapulted into shock. It’s inconceivable he’s lost his vivacious and beautiful former actress wife, doubly mystifying that his money could, for the first time, neither cushion him from life’s random brutality nor offer solace. Grief-stricken, he leans over a building imagining how easy it would be to let go, the prospect of death “like falling into bed.”

In his sorrow forgetting his wife had been 37 weeks pregnant, the subsequent stark realization the child had been cut from her dead mother’s belly was unbearable. He did not want the baby, could not bear to think of her. Still, she was the link that bound him to his late wife.

Unprepared for the child’s striking beauty, when they meet he’s taken aback that she looks like him—dark-skinned and exotic—rather than her fair, blonde mother. Her eyes are riveting; despite himself he’s entranced.

Understandably overprotective, Philippe imprisons his daughter in a gilded cage of wealth and privilege, ostensibly to keep her safe. As she grows older, paternal caresses turn carnal. It’s a simple enough matter replacing employees, once they begin noticing the unnatural attention he’s giving his daughter, easy to shelter her from the world—and the world from coming to her aid.

The years pass. Angelica grows graceful and beautiful, losing her childlike appearance, becoming more womanly. Allowed no television, Internet, or contact outside their home, she has no frame of reference. What her father does to her must certainly be normal. She has no reason to think otherwise.

Turning 14, the age her father’s considers “respectful” for intercourse, things begin to shift. What he does to her starts to hurt. The eyes of the servants, the looks on their faces, begin to make sense. She starts to get it: Her father’s attentions are unnatural.

It isn’t until a handsome young man comes to visit, bringing artwork he knows Philippe covets as an excuse to gain entrance and have a look at the fabled beautiful daughter, that Angelica has the opportunity to appeal to an outsider with the power to help. Within moments, he sees through the charade.

He invites the girl on a drive and is intent on rescuing her, but Angelica’s desperation to get away catches her father’s attention. He grows agitated. Sensing the futility, the young man retreats for the moment. Later making another effort, Philippe catches him, raining down holy hell. In the ensuing violence, the young man is injured, nearly killed, chased away.

Angelica’s only hope gone, she slides into despair. Though it hardly seems possible, the story becomes ever darker. There will be no redemption.

Haddon bases his novel on the story of a king who offers the hand of his beautiful daughter to any man who can solve a riddle, the answer revealing King Antiochus is having an incestuous affair with his child. Enter Pericles, the valiant and very clever suitor. The answer to the riddle obvious to him, he senses admitting that will put his life in danger.

Antiochus has no intention of letting his daughter go. When Pericles asks for a few days to mull over the answer, the king sees through the ruse. He grants the young man 40 days in a show of fairness; as Pericles gallops toward home an assassin follows close on his heels.

Alternating between a contemporary storyline and the myth inspiring it, at first the swings back and forth feel smooth. Kept balanced, it’s easily navigated. However, as the book progresses and Haddon extends the Pericles sections longer and longer, the interruptions become intrusive, breaking the narrative spell. It’s as if The Porpoise is made up of two entirely different books forced together, in a rather ungainly way. Had it been better balanced throughout, perhaps the effect could have been more satisfying.

By turns riveting and repulsive, the sickening story of a father’s descent into an incestuous relationship with his daughter is the more compelling narrative: difficult to read, yet impossible to put down. The story of Pericles, just as skillfully written, cannot quite keep up. The ever-lengthening fable begins to feel interminable, such is the power of Angelica’s pull.

The writing is brilliant, building from a deceptively plain beginning few paragraphs to sophisticated prose that leaps off the page. The Porpoise remains unbalanced, yet the end of Angelica’s story is epic Greek tragedy. Haddon pulls the columns from the temple, buckling the walls, the crashing stones crushing the life from his characters. The reader stands in awe, squinting through and covered with the dust, as the curtain falls.

In its crushing power The Porpoise is ultimately redeemed.