This installment: NYC drag world of the ’80 (f)s; a charming new Kinsella (f); best of the small presses (nf); what divorce can do to kids (f); and a sparkling autobiography of an octogenarian folk musician (nf).
The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara
Heartbreaking, vivid, intense entrance into the gay NYC world of the ‘80s, in particular the “houses” formed by participants in the drag balls of the time. Lost souls, all, who ran away from impossible domestic set ups: brutal, addicted parents and poverty. They’re taken in by a “mother” of sorts for guidance and protection and, yes, good times. Kind of. Because hustling is how they can support house expenses and reach for their dreams. We follow these characters from tentative beginnings to brief triumphs and sad ends—-AIDS mostly. Shot through with street wisdom, sass, and some Spanish for color (pretty easy to guess by context). Full of life, despite, and very evocative.
Surprise Me by Sophie Kinsella
An insurance checkup sends Dan and Sylvia to the doctor where they learn that due to their excellent health, they may have a projected 68 more years of marriage. Sylvia’s flabbergasted, then freaked out by the prospect. How to keep things interesting all this time? The scheme as the title suggests leads to absurd misfires (a Kinsella specialty) until an underlying family secret knocks Sylvia for a loop and the couple finally gets real. She’d been brought up like a princess with her mother always referring to her spouse as “poor Dan,” and she idealized her suave, handsome father, now dead. Charming, funny, and satisfying.
Pushcart Prize XLI 2017
Packed with fiction, essays, and poetry from small presses. I took this on a trip and it got me through tedious plane delays very nicely. I always find gems, like a haunting fantasy about a “mushroom queen” who supplants a human woman and seductively spreads her mycelium threads that results in damp decay (science and fantasy meet). Or a very funny essay on failure in which a theatrical project fulfills its aim spectacularly (splat!). Gems, galore.
Every Other Weekend by Zulema Renee Summerfield
A stunner of a book which starts out modestly. Nine year old Nanny’s parents split and so do her and her sibling’s lives. Then with the death (murder?) of her stepfather’s ex (another weird shift) there are weeks with dad at the apartment complex and weekends with a mom who feels out of reach. Finally some healing. Kids contain multitudes: insights, sharp observations, huge fears, and Nanny articulates all these pitch-perfect. Southern California setting, Catholic, and with all its painful detail, universal and profound.
First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger
What a bracing, all-encompassing, hope-inducing memoir by this octogenarian folk artist. Sister of Pete (a hero of mine), companion then wife of Ewan MacColl, father of their three children and artistic collaborator. Rabble rouser, political activist—I’m aswirl with her accomplishments. We get rich details of her early life in America, her long time in England as a lynch-pin of the folk revival movement, her sojourn back in America after Ewan’s death, and her lover /soulmate Irene. Interwoven are opinions, polemics and tips on singing and performing. Straight-talk plus the poetry of her lyrics and how they arose from her life. An absolute treasure!
Back next week.