Thursday, July 7, 2022

IPHIGENIA IN AULIS, The Age of Bronze Edition graphic novel retelling & THE BRIDE OF ALMOND TREE, Australian post-WWII disillusionment


Text Publishing
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: World War II is over and Hiroshima lies in a heap of poisoned rubble when young Quaker Wesley Cunningham returns home to Almond Tree. He served as a stretcher-bearer; he’s seen his fair share of horror. Now he intends to build beautiful houses and to marry, having fallen in love with his neighbour’s daughter Beth Hardy.

Beth has other plans. An ardent socialist, she is convinced the Party and Stalin’s Soviet Union hold the answers to all the world’s evils. She doesn’t believe in marriage, and in any case her devotion is to the cause. Beth’s ideals will exact a ruinously high price. But Wes will not stop loving her. This is the story of their journey through the catastrophic mid-twentieth century—from summer in Almond Tree to Moscow’s bitter winter and back again—to find a way of being together.


My Review
: Believing in A Cause has some costs. Patty and Wes Cunningham, Quaker siblings, are raised to believe their god has a purpose for them. When that purpose is made manifest, it is the organizing principle of the entirety of their lives from then on. World War II is the driver of Patty's purpose, as she serves Humanity in nursing its broken and abused; this takes her to Hiroshima and its almost unbearably damaged people, and her path in life is set for good. It leads her to the tender regard of a Japanese doctor, and Patty is sorted.

Wes, who serves in the war as a stretcher bearer, is wounded and realizes he wants one thing: to go home to Almond Tree, build a house, marry and raise kids who won't fight in wars. It isn't until this purpose in life is revealed to him that he begins to think about the party of the second part to this contract with god: mother/wife. When he sees his childhood friend Beth, everything clicks into place and he knows who he is to husband for his lifetime.

Elizabeth Hardy is a woman on fire. She ends World War II with an unquenchable Marxist faith, a belief that the Soviet Union is a Utopia, and that she must serve the Party however she can there in Australia. Wes, sweet and solid, isn't likely to assist her in any way getting the Revolution exported. His declaration of devotion is, well...not important to her. She says, "what about my sister? she'll do all that stuff for and with you!" but Wes, Quaker to his core, knows god wants him to serve Beth so he does.

Despite the devotion she does nothing to deserve and the huge amount of practical assistance she gets from Wes, Beth remains a loyal Communist to the point of being sent to prison over it. Beth's wildness is, it's clear, addictive to Wes and resonates with his own "must serve god's will" faith, so I was unsurprised by his eventual reward. Beth's passion leads her into ugly places and enables a user's streak in her. That she isn't perfect is, I admit, a relief but her imperfections are consistent throughout and clearly march along Wes's lines. After Beth becomes acquainted with the realities of Soviet Russia, she learns how far ideology can fall from reality. In the end, faithful, loyal Wes softens her landing and the life they lead can now begin.

Australia in the Cold War wasn't at terrible risk of falling into the Soviet orbit but there were many True Believers whose attempts to nudge the country there weren't successful. It's like all faiths to me, is Marxism. Unappealing, bringing out the worst in people, and making the world's most vile behavior Okay when it's for the cause. Wes and Patty's religious faith is presented as a contrast to Beth's political faith, but is equally gross. They're taught to be self-sacrificing for god's sake, not because it's the right thing to do. Wes doesn't even do the right thing! He enables an abuser and gets the back of her hand for it for far too long.

As historical fiction, I enjoyed the light shone on ordinary Australians' lives in the upheaval of WWII and its aftermath. As a novel, I wanted to shake Wes and shove him into Fanny Hardy's arms with a stern injunction to forget that crappy sister-in-law of his. And Beth needed to rot in the Soviet jail for her selfish, self-centered antics that could easily have cost her innocent family so much more.


IPHIGENIA IN AULIS, The Age of Bronze Edition

Image Comics
$16.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: High King Agamemnon faces the most crushing dilemma of his life. Kill his beloved eldest daughter? Or forfeit victory in the Trojan War? A father’s secret plot clashes with a girl’s romantic dreams in this chilling classic play from Ancient Greece.

The most powerful dramatic script by EURIPIDES springs to life anew in a fresh adaptation by writer EDWARD EINHORN (Paradox in Oz, Fractions in Disguise, The Marriage of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein) with AGE OF BRONZE art by Eisner Award-winning ERIC SHANOWER (AGE OF BRONZE, Oz Graphic Novels, Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland).


My Review
: A graphic-novel adaptation of the basic story of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

dramatis personae from
I don't really know what else to say; if you haven't read those stories, or haven't seen the innumerable retellings in such media as exist then you've got one helluva learning curve ahead. This graphic version will, I suppose, do nicely to get you into the story. The idea that Agamemnon was required to kill his own child for a war against his sister-in-law's little bit on the side. It's a stupid reason to go to war, and the cost of it was staggering.
The art is, as you'd expect from Eric Shanower, convincing and technically accomplished. The story is adapted from Euripides by playwright Edward Einhorn. His success or failure is a matter of personal taste; I liked it fine.
Familiar or unfamiliar as you may be with the source material, it's a fantastic and worthy project, executed well, and solidly entertaining.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

FIRE ON THE ISLAND: A Romantic Thriller, Greek-American gay sleuth in the homeland & THE FOURTH COURIER, end-of-Cold-War spyjinks story

FIRE ON THE ISLAND: A Romantic Thriller

Arcade Crimewise (NON-AFFILIATE Amazon link
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: For lovers of crime fiction and the allure of the Greek islands, Fire on the Island is the perfect summer read.

FIRE ON THE ISLAND is a playful, romantic thriller set in contemporary Greece, with a gay Greek-American FBI agent, who is undercover on the island to investigate a series of mysterious fires. Set against the very real refugee crisis on the beautiful, sun-drenched Greek islands, this novel paints a loving portrait of a community in crisis. As the island residents grapple with declining tourism, poverty, refugees, family feuds, and a perilously damaged church, an arsonist invades their midst.

Nick Damigos, the FBI agent, arrives on the island just in time to witness the latest fire and save a beloved truffle-sniffing dog. Hailed as a hero and embraced by the community, Nick finds himself drawn to Takis, a young bartender who becomes his primary suspect, which is a problem because they're having an affair. Theirs is not the only complicated romance in the community and Takis isn't the only suspicious character on the island. Nick has to unravel the truth in time to prevent catastrophe, as he comes to terms with his own past trauma. In saving the village, he will go a long way toward saving himself.

A long time devotee of the Greek islands, Smith paints the setting with gorgeous color and empathy, ushering in a new romantic thriller with the charm of Zorba the Greek while shedding bright light on the very real challenges of life in contemporary Greece.


My Review
: The main thing a person wants in a beach read is escape, right? A chance to see something new and different in the world while baking on a sandy stretch of not-my-problem, with a little light romance/sex tossed (!) in for fun. And here it is, laddies and gentlewomen: The prescription substance for your beach-read needs.

Nick is our sort-of PoV character, though I think the novel's fairly ensemble-cast-y. He provides the action that solves the problems, so it's not unfair to promote him to centrality. He's a Greek-American settled in Athens, where he does Greek-themed stuff for the FBI. Considering how important Greece is to many and various criminal enterprises within the US, this didn't raise my eyebrows. The situation in which Nick active refugee crisis, a local problem with criminal arson, a subplot of Russian-mafia troubles...was, then, one in which I could certainly imagine US federal law enforcement taking enough of an interest to send someone to monitor.

I'm a little more skeptical about Nick's open gayness. Not so much in Greece...the history's there, and the Greek townspeople's homophobia isn't over- or under-played...but in the FBI. Gayness within the federal law enforcement establishment isn't surprising but its openness is to me. I suspended disbelief on the subject because I could simply be behind the times and am most certainly sour and suspicious of all law enforcement personnel.

That said, those were my principal struggles with the book's set-up; its delivery of them, and of the remaining elements of the plot, was most agreeably deft and disarming. I knew from the start that the idea of the village was to offer the storyteller a pressure cooker. The Greece-to-Australia pipeline is well and truly attested for generations now, and plays a large part here in this story. The ways Author Smith brought the connection to life were sneaky and very nicely executed, having the desired effect of making the guilt of Nick's local fling Takis look inevitable while making sure that he couldn't really be guilty. (You'll work that out in mere moments when the means of linking Takis to the crimes is presented.) So, while it plays out, enjoy the mummery. Likewise Nick, the scion of Greek emigrants, is treading a well-worn real-world path from Greece to Baltimore and back again. The refugee crisis is horribly real. Its dreadful, cruel scope isn't even as severe in the story as in reality. The ongoing Greek debt crisis is presented but not explored because, honestly, would you rather read about a sexy young guy setting his sights on a silver fox and then bedding him, or microeconomic consequences of predatory capitalism?

Me neither. And, for the ewww-ick homophobes, the sex is not explicit or more than sketched in. Perfect beach-read level sexytimes, with plenty of happy coupling left to the adult relationship veteran's inner eye. What sex wasn't pleasant to view to one's inner eye was the sadder-but-wiser loss of virginity for a teen girl, an event she precipitates and, while it was happening, realizes is pretty damned disappointing. She doesn't leave the experience with good feelings about it. She also realizes what her own responsibilities in the situation are when it threatens to run her true love's course into a brick wall. Luckily she's a sensible person and makes very sure to exert her quite considerable will towards the resolution she wants to bring about. I was pleased that she was both a teenager...moody, nasty, angry as hell about whatever it is that makes teens so angry...and a burgeoning adult, with a clear goal she sets when things are at their most bewilderingly loud. I liked her for that trait.

Her mother and grandparents have a surprising connection to the arsons that bring Nick to the island. Her family's Australian connection and resultant outsiderdom are played for some clear plot advantages. The family isn't as outside as they feel themselves to be. The village, in fact, doesn't come out of the arsons and the other terrible crimes that occur while Nick is there entirely unchanged. The problems Nick knew were festering and which his mere presence were always going to lance were the sorts of issues that confront small, tight-knit communities the world over. In the end, Nick's actions in pursuit of solutions are as well-aimed at the dark and ugly past as at the creepy present.

While I liked that aspect of the story, I think I might've liked Nick a lot more for his characterization than his actions. He's in the early stages of midlife. He's got a terrible, nightmarish trauma in his past that he doesn't like to reveal. As it has physical marks on his body, he's reluctant to be as slutty as most gay characters in beach reads are (goddesses please bless their anti-gravity underwear). His body dysmorphia comes from literal scarring events, and it's shown as being truly troubling for Nick to confront. Takis is the agent of his reassessment of the problem. It is shown that Takis is singularly uninterested in Nick's scars and quite empathetic with his scarring. That was a very nice side-show in their passionate seasonal fling.

I also particularly resonated with the fact that everyone from the island is shown as possessing a very solid motivation for their actions, and those motivations (dark or bright) were delineated in enough detail that I could make them part of my response to the tale as a whole. I think the author's investment of time in revealing the town's traumas caused and endured paid off...even the revelation of the arsonist led to the revelation of the motives and the sheer awfulness of Hatred, that dark miasma clouding the haters' ability to see the essential sameness of all human beings. It was well handled. I didn't condone the actions that led to the actions I didn't condone, which matryoshka-doll of a response is far more complex than most beach-read thrillers I've read over the years.

But there are no perfect experiences in this, our life, are there. I wasn't really impressed with the handling of the art-forgery subplot. and its blatant gaudy obviousness. I was moved, and saddened, by the reasons for arsonist's tricks. I wasn't at all impressed that the consequences were so severe for the present-day crimes and not equally severe for those that motivated them in the first place. I was very amused with the by-play between Takis and Nick, the way they make what can only be a season's romance into something both fun and important to them both. I suppose a door was left open at the end for them to reconnect but it was pretty heavily deterministically set down as "nevermore." A bit less of a hammerblow to the gauzy soft-focus desire for A Happy Ending to their happy endings wouldn't have come amisss, and as it was felt more like the author was caving in to pressure to close down that Happy Ending.

None of these are deal-breakers, I hasten to add. I want to read more Timothy Jay Smith stories and I can definitely recommend this one to you for your beach reading pleasure.



Arcade Crimewise
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: For International Espionage Fans of Alan Furst and Daniel Silva, a new thriller set in post-Soviet era Poland.

It is 1992 in Warsaw, Poland, and the communist era has just ended. A series of grisly murders suddenly becomes an international case when it's feared that the victims may have been couriers smuggling nuclear material out of the defunct Soviet Union. The FBI sends an agent to help with the investigation. When he learns that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb has disappeared, the race is on to find him—and the bomb—before it ends up in the wrong hands.

Smith’s depiction of post-cold war Poland is gloomily atmospheric and murky in a world where nothing is quite as it seems. Suspenseful, thrilling, and smart, The Fourth Courier brings together a straight white FBI agent and gay black CIA officer as they team up to uncover a gruesome plot involving murder, radioactive contraband, narcissistic government leaders, and unconscionable greed.


My Review
: Atmospheric, dark thriller about the immediate aftermath of the USSR's fall, its consequences for the former Warsaw Pact countries (especially Poland), and a morally ambiguous story of how the balance of power stays balanced.

I was unsurprised to see the homophobia of the Eastern Bloc countries brought into focus...remember Swimming in the Dark? Nationalist Love?...but was quite surprised to see it used to make a US spy into a honey trap for a General known to be, um, susceptible. It's such a realpolitik maneuver that I've always assumed it was simply unknown. Silly me. If something can provide leverage, of course it's been used by both sides.

Kurt, our gay character, is both Black and a CIA honey trap for the self-loathing General. He's...fine with it. He uses his body, its beauty and power, to further the interests of his chosen side. This means he's not a good gay, or a good guy. This being Reality I'm all down with this in theory. In practice, as it's handled in this story, it's a bit more like prostitution than it is noble self-sacrifice. I'm not criticizing here but analyzing what it is that the two things have in common: Exchange of value. The sheer mercenary chill of Kurt giving the General what he craves is perfectly appropriate, if distasteful.

Again, the consummation of the act isn't explicit. It's more detailed than it was in Fire on the Island. It's staged in a shower, and that made me chuckle...let's keep it clean, boys!...and the ending, which is indeed Happy, is somewhat heavy-handedly made into a political commentary. But I wasn't anywhere near as creeped out as I routinely am in these sorts of situations when it's a woman using her body to get a man to do something for her side. My primary issue is: That's it. That's what Kurt's there to do, he does it, and buh bye now!

As with all the gay characters in the book, they serve a role and vacate the scene when it's fulfilled. I found Jay, straight and narrow Jay, uninteresting really. He was an investigator who didn't investigate but ran across answers. It's not like that is unknown in thrillerdom. It just doesn't endear him to me. And honestly I just do not care about his ex-wife or about his borning relationship with Lilka the Polish lady, which yet again (see review above) is clearly stated as Not Going Anywhere.

Nowhere near as much fun to read as Fire on the Island, but I wanted to finish the read. I was involved, I was entertained, and yet still I was unsatisfied because Kurt was underutilized. Why tell me about him at all if all he was there to do was fuck one guy and then melt down the shower drain with his jizz?

I don't doubt that straight people will like it more than I did.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Happy Long weekend, North Americans!

After posting fifty reviews this #PrideMonth, I'm taking the long weekend off. Expect normal service, Monday-Wednesday-Friday, to resume on Wednesday, 6 July 2022.

If you haven't noticed, email subscribers are getting erratic deliveries from all Blogger sites because Google never made enough money from the platform to take the needs of its users too seriously. I myownself suggest using Feedly to follow your various blogs and news sites. I do; it's a simple process and I get everything in one simple menu that I can customize within limits. (Unless you're willing to pay for it, but I'm too cheap.) Hugely reduces the time I spend sifting through my inbox, for one thing, and reduces the amount of time I spend clicking around, too. Give it a whirl! (I am not sponsored by or getting anything at all for this announcement.)

Be safe this holiday weekend. Don't drink and drive, that's why gawd invented Uber and Lyft. Every single one of you who reads my posts is a gift, and I'm grateful for you all.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

THIS CLEAVING AND THIS BURNING, what gay men coped with a century ago & DISORIENTAL, Lammy Award-winning bisexual fiction

(tr. Tina Kover)
Europa Editions
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five


The Publisher Says: Kimiâ Sadr fled Iran at the age of ten in the company of her mother and sisters to join her father in France. Now twenty-five and facing the future she has built for herself as well as the prospect of a new generation, Kimiâ is inundated by her own memories and the stories of her ancestors, which come to her in unstoppable, uncontainable waves. In the waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, generations of flamboyant Sadrs return to her, including her formidable great-grandfather Montazemolmolk, with his harem of fifty-two wives, and her parents, Darius and Sara, stalwart opponents of each regime that befalls them.

In this high-spirited, kaleidoscopic story, key moments of Iranian history, politics, and culture punctuate stories of family drama and triumph. Yet it is Kimiâ herself––punk-rock aficionado, storyteller extraordinaire, a Scheherazade of our time, and above all a modern woman divided between family traditions and her own “disorientalization”—who forms the heart of this bestselling and beloved novel.


My Review
: From the off, this is a very musical, music-like story, told in the form of "Side A" and "Side B." This alerts us "...old enough to remember 45 rpm vinyl records know that the B-side is usually less interesting that the A-side. Side B is the failed side, the weak side", that we should expect the whole read to be inflected by this frame of reference. And lo and behold, it is!

Kimiâ, or "alchemy" as the word has come to us in English, is a magical confabulation of stories and ideas and history. She is in a fertility clinic when we meet her...she is making the future, deliberately and calculatedly, in other words...and she begins with many skips and backtrackings and forward-lurchings to relate to us the recent history of Iran. ("Recent" is relative, of course, since Iran's history dates back to the invention of the idea of civilization so dwarfs silly Western concepts like "history" and the yet-more-modern "prehistory.") Kimiâ's family, the whole huge swath of them...six uncles, a grandfather who had a wife for ever week of the year...are in their different ways shaping the world's as well as their own world's history.

Sara and Darius, her mom and dad, are revolutionaries against the Shah, though very much antithetical to the theocratic horrors of the Islamic state that replaced one cruel oppressor with another. Their exile to France doesn't dim their ardor for and connection to an Iran free and liberated from repression and tyranny. For Kimiâ that includes her sex's oppression and reduction to the role of housewives. She's a bisexual woman and very much anathema to the present regime. They don't acknowlege the existence of gay or bi identities in Iran.

It gives special poignance to the read to realize that Home, when it doesn't want you, isn't home anymore; and France, the land they're living in if not part of, is in the awful, wrenching process of a rightward shift that rejects foreigners like her. It's a miserable truth that Négar Djavadi, the author of the work, is living in that same France, writing in French, and unable to conceptualize a safe return to the land of her birth.
Sleep isn't about resting, it's about letting yourself settle, like the sediment at the bottom of a wine barrel. I'm nowhere near trusting this world that much.

It is, in the end, the birth, "that dark hyphen between the past and the future which, once crossed, closes again and condemns you to wander"...her own, your own, the one Kimiâ is going to endure soon enough...that provides Kimiâ's final reckoning with the subject of exile:
With the passage of time, the flesh of events decomposes, leaving only a skeleton of impressions on which to embroider. Undoubtedly there will come a day when even the impressions will only be a memory. And then there won’t be anything left to tell.

She is compelled "to let myself be guided by the flow of images and free associations, the natural fits and starts, the hollows and bumps carved into my memories by time." She is the witness, the one whose between-state of emigrant/immigrant is definitional; her responsibility equally to the parents and family whose worlds are so different from hers, and the life she's making whose exostence will continue a line of existences that partake in many beautiful, braided strands of the bread we eat with our every act, that we call History.



Guernica Editions
$17.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Two unrelated, aspiring writers, born on the same day in the same year to parents with the same first names, grow up together and eventually gain national prominence as authors. As the years pass, the complex sexual identities of Miller Sark and Hal Pierce undermine their intense private relationship, inflicting damage that cannot be undone by the distinction of their fiction and poetry. Inspired by the lives and works of American literary giants Ernest Hemingway and Hart Crane, This Cleaving and This Burning reveals the passion and purpose behind masks of public reputation and creative expression.


My Review
: The bones of this story are based on Hemingway and Hart Crane, a sadly now-forgotten poet popular in the 1920s for his exaggeratedly obscurantist poetry. He was much on the model of T.S. Eliot, though far more, um, impressionistic in his vocabulary and stylistic affectations. For all that, he had a spark of some beautiful thing, a light that shone from his lines (as oddly heard as they were:
The willows carried a slow sound,
A sarabande the wind mowed on the mead.
I could never remember
That seething, steady leveling of the marshes
Till age had brought me to the sea.

These lines are from "Repose of Rivers" which is from his seminal collection White Buildings. Modern Queer Theory proponents like the late Thomas E. Yingling and Tim Dean have pushed back against heteronormative readings of Crane's poetry, arguing that his gayness was central to his sense of himself, and his sense of being a social pariah for his queerness was central to his poet's identity.

Any road, the friendship between Hemingway (a hugely overpraised writer in my never-remotely humble opinion) and Crane is not factual; it's factual that, had it happened, this is the way it would've ended given Hemingway's homophobia.

The thing that drew me ever deeper into this read was the beautiful creative world these two inhabited, the joyous freedom of childhood and adolescence spent with light supervision allowing them to muse and think and just *be*. The way the words knit and tat and crochet the strands of character and story together was magical. There's really very little said, apart from a seriously climactic scene, about their natural world...and even that scene is far more about Hal's thoughts and feelings. The characters, based on real men, are themselves and not merely mouthpieces for a plot full of contrivances. It hews as closely to the known life-events of the men as it's possible to do within the confines of writing one's own story.

While the ending was a saddening thing to read, it was factual in its results and outlines. What I'd recommend to readers is that they come to this tale of the valences of long-term friendships, especially same-gender ones, with a spirit of discovery. The novel is about the transformative nature of Love in its many, many, bizarre and unhappy and joyful forms. The love between men-friends is one of the toughest to show in fiction unless one resorts to sports as a central metaphor. In the case of Miller and Hal, the center of their long and loving friendship is Miller's appreciation of the adornments of Hal's poetical imagination and Hal's appreciation of Miller's grounded, practical masculinity. The tragedy of an ending is always there in the rapture of a beginning, isn't it.

It's actually a bit of a surprise to me how much I ended up enjoying this read. I don't generally like tragic endings to queer stories but this one's both factual and handled with a real sensitivity to the story that's led up to it. The characters, always forefronted in Author Wainwright's hands, are very clearly heading into inevitability. Their hidden selves and their public presentations of self collide and fragment on the rocks of Love. It has happened forever; it will happen myriad times again. It's a testament to that reality's careful construction in This Cleaving and This Burning that it failed for once to trigger my knee-jerk hostility to this kind of ending.

I'll say this for Author Wainwright. Decades of writing, both poetry and novels, has led him into a beautiful green pasture of story that only he could inhabit with the lightness and rightness of touch to sell my resistant soul on such a painful, sad to read, finale for two fascinating characters.

ARCADIA, rare intersex representation & THE WASTELAND, London life of gay poet/literary ikon T.S. Eliot


Level 4 Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: The extraordinary career and devastating life of T.S. Eliot.

T.S. Eliot is a hollow man trapped in a dreary world. He works at a bank, a slave to the clock, the same routine, day after day. While London’s elite enjoy a Great Gatsby lifestyle and poets like Robert Frost are rock stars, attracting thousands of fans to each reading, Mr. Eliot walks past life, peering at it through cracks or around corners. Only in his imagination does the world drip with color.

Then one day he comes across Jack, an out and proud gay man being badly beaten, and something compels him to intervene. Life will never be the same.

Jack introduces Mr. Eliot to the gay underground of early twentieth-century London and to feelings Mr. Eliot had crammed down and locked away. And with freedom comes poetry. Extraordinary poetry that takes London by storm. But as Mr. Eliot’s fame increases, pressure for conformity does as well. Religious intolerance, fascism’s increasingly popular message of traditional values, and the allure of untold success present him with a decision that could have devastating consequences.

The Wasteland is the untold story of T.S. Eliot, his secret struggle with being gay, the people left in the wake of his meteoric career trajectory, and the madness that helped produce his greatest work.


My Review
: Sadness. Grey, enveloping sadness. That's the take-away I had from this technically adept reinvention of poet T.S Eliot's early-1920s life in London.
Even if there were no light on the bank, Mr. Eliot would still know it was there. It's always there, waiting to welcome him with open arms, more than willing to take more tocks from his clock.


"We return you now to our regular broadcast," the announcer drones.

"Clair de Lune." Claude Debussy. Relaxation. Baloney.

Baloney indeed, and more than just that in a penitential dry sandwich consumed in a lonely penitentiary. With the aplomb of a dab hand at this fantastical-reimaging stuff, Eliot's life is peopled with the souls embodied and conjured on a magical-realist visit with the great poet. We even see him conjuring Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock (whose peaches are uneaten and coffee spoons resolutely empty) on the day he learns his new crush, Jack, is no longer with the bank. But Mr. Eliot is in for a major surprise in this case.... are the readers of this historical fantasia on themes of gay men's circumscribed lives. Mr. Eliot, for I cannot bear to call him Tom, is a creative and passionate soul in the body of a Puritan. He is deformed and damaged by a world he despises as he obeys it. Mr. Eliot will get his revenge. He blares forth a trumpet of poetic passion that has stood its ground atop English-language poetry. Its creator is given, here, by Author Jameson, a life that commingles reality and fantasy as only a poet could merit, warrant, summon forth from beyond the grave's creative silence.


(tr. Ruth Diver)
Seven Stories Press
$12.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: An English-language debut that reveals and subverts contemporary conceptions of normative sexuality, capitalist culture, and environmental degradation.

Winner, Prix du Livre Inter, 2019

Farah moves into Liberty House–an arcadia, a community in harmony with nature–at the tender age of six, with her family. The commune’s spiritual leader, Arcady, preaches equality, non-violence, anti-speciesism, free love, and uninhibited desire for all, regardless of gender, age, looks, or ability. On her fifteenth birthday, Farah learns she is intersex, and begins to question the confines of gender, and the hypocritical principles those within and outside the confraternity live by. What, Farah asks, is a man or a woman? What is it to be part of a community? What is the endgame for a utopia that exists alongside refugees seeking shelter by the millions and in a society moving ever farther away from nature and its protections. As Liberty House devolves into a dystopia amidst charges of sexual abuse, it starts to look a lot like the larger world, confused in its fears and selfish hedonism.

Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam delivers a magisterial novel, a scathing critique of innocence in the contemporary world.


My Review
: Really, really squicked out by what I see as a borderline-coercive sexual relationship between a fifteen-year-old who's just discovered they're intersex and the much-older leader of the cult that they and their family now belong to. I took a long break from the read because I was not sure I wanted to finish this entire story. It brought up my mother's sexually abusive power-plays against me. That was not comfortable at all.

So I'm unusually alert to sexual undertones in relationships between kids and adults. I felt Arcady, the cult/commune leader, was less grooming Farah than responding to Farah's burgeoning sense of themself as a sexual, intersex person. While that doesn't lessen my personal discomfort with Arcady's power imbalance with Farah, it does show that Author Bayamack-Tam possesses a clear sense of the need to keep the power dynamic in balance. Add to that Farah's rare and possibly genetically-heritable anatomical anomaly resulting in an indeterminate sex and gender presentation.

Prime candidate for a charismatic cult leader's sexual manipulation. Which, it must be said, is present; but the clear and repeated caveat from older Arcady is that they reach maturity before he will sexually engage with them. Farah, quite understandably, is not willing to wait some indeterminate amount of time for someone not her to decide they're capable of offering informed consent and, mirabile dictu, pushes the schedule to meet their burgeoning sexual desires.

Totally understand that. But great-grandfather does not think with a teen's hormones, and holds Arcady to a higher standard. But anyway, this was not anything Farah regrets or has doubts about; and again, the stage was set for this to be as unrevolting as possible because we know what Farah is thinking and feeling.

I've gone on about the subject and left out the nudist free-spirit grandmother, the cypher parents who really are affectless, the communards whose existence is merely suggested not explored in even the slightest general, this is a decent novel by a hippie-wannabe, a French-lady Brautigan, with an agenda and an axe being ground noisily in the background. Also a fun story to read.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

MY VOLCANO, strange nonbinary Canadian-authored surreal SF & THE GEOGRAPHY OF PLUTO, meditative gay Canadian-authored bildungsroman


Esplanade Books (I like the original edition's cover better, so I've used it in place of the current one)
$17.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Twenty-eight-year-old Will, a teacher living in Montreal's gay village, has spent the last few months recovering from a breakup with his first serious boyfriend, Max. He has resumed his search for companionship, but has he truly moved on?

Will's mother Katherine - one of the few people, perhaps the only one, who loves him unconditionally - is also in recovery, from a bout with colon cancer that haunts her body and mind with the possibility of relapse.

Having experienced heartbreak, and fearful of tragedy, Will must come to terms with the rule of impermanence: to see past lost treasures and unwanted returns, to find hope and solace in the absolute certainty of change.

In The Geography of Pluto, Christopher DiRaddo perfectly captures the ebb and flow of life through the insightful, exciting, and often playful story of a young man's day-to-day struggle with uncertainty.


My Review
: What I can tell you is that this is a reading experience to savor, because it's got the meditative quality of all the best bildungsromans. It's not precisely The Sorrows of Young Werther (thank goodness) but it's as deeply felt and its hero is very much a hero.

What I can't tell you is what the heck made me pick it for a Canadian friend to send to me in 2015. (He's no longer my friend, so naming no names.) I guess I wanted a Canadian gay man's perspective...? I don't know but thank goodness he chose to gift me this book, and I got to meet Will and his loved ones. I don't think I'll forget Angie, the lesbian bestie, any time soon..."you {gays} have it so good, there's always a party or something, lesbians are boring!" as Will's trying to process heartbreak...and while I don't want to remember Max, I know I will. *guilty memories*

Into every ordinary life...Will's mother, close to him, doesn't know he's gay (or so he thinks). She's now, after a long motherhood without a coparent, facing the worst sort of news: Terminal cancer. This is, as anyone who's lived through it knows, a death sentence for whoever the person you were before your loved one was diagnosed as well as for them. It's a long and bitter war, Will learns, to be there for someone you love as they die. He is up to the challenge, though, and does his mother proud: He comes out to her. And, before she dies, the "...unspoken truth that would weigh upon her until she was ready to confront it: that she was the mother of a gay man," is spoken and it (predictably) isn't anything that awful in their lives.

It is with Max, Will's first serious love, that I got squirmy. He is Mr. Right! He's so {insert laundry list of delightful things}! He and I will grow old together. And Max is thinking, "this is great, I like this guy and the sex really works, but I need something else," and doesn't share that with the passionately in-love Will because, well, the sex really works. So when the inevitable happens and he breaks up with Will, only one of them is devastated and it's not Max. Who, need I mention, recrudesces like a malign growth in Will's world...he simply can't just Be Done, get over it, without Max wanting...something.

I guess it's a no-brainer to realize that Will, a geography teacher by profession, living in Montreal, a city whose geography is ever-present, unignorable, and quite beautiful, will describe same to reader. It's a pleasure to read. The descriptions are embedded, and frequently at spoiler-sensitive times, or I'd quote one or two. The reason I bring it up is that it's one of my favorite things about the read. I had a firm sense of place, I was oriented in Will's world, and I've been to Montreal only twice. That's a good job of world-building, Author DiRaddo. The wonderful ending of the book takes us, in Will's musings, out to Pluto the ex-planet, the cold world beyond anything Humankind's ever known. Will says about its 2006 demotion from planethood:
Is anything truly permanent? Can anything ever be when your own universe can surprise you with something new about itself—correcting a fact you were taught to believe your entire life? The teacher in me wonders what they will do now with the old textbooks, the ones that count the planets in our solar system as nine. The little boy in me feels betrayed by the astronomers, the curtain pulled further back on the limits of science. But the lover in me is optimistic, content that something so cold and distant is perhaps more understandable.

So that's it. Will's ordinary life is just...ordinary. He lives, loves, hurts, laughs in Montreal. He questions his choices and his sanity, his luck and his lovers. He does it all at the turn of the millennium, which honestly feels like History now. And I was in my forties! So there's a lot to learn about younger people, their ways and their means; but there's really so much more that simply feels like the best kind of homecoming to me. I remember these passages, including his coping with a parent's loss and a lost parent. Will felt like a man I'd gladly have to a dinner party and expect he'd be a great asset to my circle of friends.

I suppose it's all just the long way to say: I think Will's a good guy, and I hope you'll give him a chance on this blind date I'm urging you to go on with him.



Two Dollar Radio
$18.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: My Volcano is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a menagerie of characters, as they each undergo personal eruptions, while the Earth itself is constantly shifting. Parable, myth, science-fiction, eco-horror, My Volcano is a radical work of literary art, emerging as a subversive, intoxicating artistic statement by John Elizabeth Stintzi.

On June 2, 2016, a protrusion of rock growing from the Central Park Reservoir is spotted by a jogger. Three weeks later, when it finally stops growing, it’s nearly two-and-a-half miles tall, and has been determined to be an active volcano.

As the volcano grows and then looms over New York, an eight-year-old boy in Mexico City finds himself transported 500 years into the past, where he witnesses the fall of the Aztec Empire; a Nigerian scholar in Tokyo studies a folktale about a woman of fire who descends a mountain and destroys an entire village; a white trans writer in Jersey City struggles to write a sci-fi novel about a thriving civilization on an impossible planet; a nurse tends to Syrian refugees in Greece while grappling with the trauma of living through the bombing of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan; a nomadic farmer in Mongolia is stung by a bee, magically transforming him into a green, thorned, flowering creature that aspires to connect every living thing into its consciousness.

With its riveting and audacious vision, My Volcano is a tapestry on fire, a distorted and cinematic new work from the fiercely talented John Elizabeth Stintzi.


My Review
: Remember Cloud Atlas? How people fussed and fumed over its interlocking time-narratives, and complained that they were "obscurantist divagations unequaled since Pynchon took the stylus away from Gertrude Stein"? (Okay, okay, I'm quoting myself from Goodreads. Sue me.)

But really, this story is, or these stories are, a challenge for linear readers to get any information or pleasure from reading it. If you'll give Author Stintzi a lot of rope, you can lasso a meaning from all two hundred-plus chapters. (I lost track at two-hundred four, and was reading way after that.) There's something...overwhelming...about that many voices coming at you, no matter what story they're telling. I don't think for an instant that was accidental. It was a choice, a decision to make the polyphony (babble to some of us) of the modern info-saturated landscape into an experiential reality. In that aim, it feels like Author Stintzi is channeling Annihilation with the entire Earth as Area X. People become something Other, as in a spiky plant; the things they pass by casually turn into that same spiky plant; what better visualization of the radicalizing effect of social media?

One character even says, I didn't want to say anything because someone would tell me they knew, about the appearance of a freakin' VOLCANO in Manhattan! That utter break in the fabric of reality wasn't worth commenting on in case it was "old news" and you'd look like you were out of touch for saying anything about it! This also echoes the storytelling hook Author Stintzi uses of beginning each character's section (they're too short for me to call them "chapters" with a straight (!) face) with a now-commonplace personal disaster...a body transformed, a police shooting, a homeless person being violated...that simply, numbingly, takes place. Nothing is made of this. In a world where Sandy Hook didn't result in stringent gun-control laws, that's a given. Sadly.

Which, I think, nicely makes their point for them: The story's set in 2016, the year a giant metaphorical volcano appeared and took over every aspect of our lives and has shaped the vile, reprehensible political and social landscape of 2022. Too many of us live inside echo chambers, bubbles of resounding agreement with any willingness to agree to disagree. I certainly do...and I'm stayin' in here. In placing the action in that before-and-after year, Author Stintzi remodels reality to punish Humankind for its unkindness and carelessness and concupiscence.

The real question I see emerging from the immensity of Author Stintzi's imagination is not can Humankind be saved...should Humankind be saved? We can exist in a world where the weirdest, awfulest, cruelest (one section deals with the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, another historical inflection point) disasters elicit nothing, not a single impulse, towards others' needs, but only our own.

One character, called only "the white trans writer", is seen writing of the most bracing honesty (read: the truth hurts) foremost in their mind, trying to make a story about an alien planet work. (Author Stintzi's nonbinary, not trans, but the point is made.) They're in some kind of existential despair. Writing will, in fact, do that to you. And listing the forty-nine names of the victims of 2016's Pulse nightclub shooting will reinforce that despair if you're One of Us...but the character speaks for the whole world when they say:
Eventually, sitting down to write the novel felt like sitting down to watch the end of the world. As if they were simply waiting to watch the planet finally spill its fetid, destructive insides out.

That is what Author Stintzi's accomplished with My Volcano, and it's either a cathartic emesis or a wracking, heaving hurl of the toxic crap you took in to make everything okay for a few hours.

THE VISITORS, trippy anti-capitalist lesbian breakdown with tech & psychosis & DIARY OF A FILM, who gets to tell queer stories?


Deep Vellum
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In this highly-lauded novel, a filmmaker meets a woman named Cosima at an Italian espresso bar, spinning a gorgeous tale of love and the creative process.

An auteur, together with his lead actors, is at a prestigious European festival to premiere his latest film. Alone one morning at a backstreet café, he strikes up a conversation with a local woman who takes him on a walk to uncover the city's secrets, historic and personal. As the walk unwinds, a story of love and tragedy emerges, and he begins to see the chance meeting as fate. He is entranced, wholly clear in his mind: her story must surely form the basis for his next film. This is a novel about cinema, flâneurs, and queer love — it is about the sometimes troubled, sometimes ecstatic creative process, and the toll it takes on its makers. But it is also a novel about stories, and the persistent question of who has the right to tell them.


My Review
: First, read this:
There was a moment in a theatre as the lights went down that you truly understood the depth of your vulnerability: that for all the good wishes and the boosting presence of family around you, the truth that you were about to be judged was inescapable. Your visual imagination and use of language, your depth and humour, as well as compassion and emotional intelligence: these were to be dissected, held aloft and appraised. I knew of no other art form that took apart a human being to the same degree of complexity.


I was jealous of the lives novelists lived but I knew that I was not a solitary creature. Novels were a different kind of cage, one where you willingly locked yourself in. {His newly discovered muse} had something of the captive in her, I thought; that same mixture of passion and restraint I’d seen in other novelists I’d worked with.

The words, musings really, of a cinema auteur of the pretentiously arty sort; all the inducement, or warning, you need about the read to come. I'm pretty sure you know right now which it is for you. I was left eager for more as I read the first sentence:
I flew to the Italian city of B. to attend the film festival in late March. Our entry into the competition, a liberal adaptation of William Maxwell’s novel The Folded Leaf, had been officially confirmed, and I was expected to participate in three days of interviews and panels to promote the release, with a jury screening on the second evening.

...because that novel contains one of my commonplace book's fattest sections. Maxwell's story, simple on the surface, of unrequited and unrequested love, is a tour-de-force of understatement that would be damned close to impossible to film. How does one get this:
But to live in the world at all is to be committed to some kind of a journey... On a turning earth, in a mechanically revolving universe, there is no place to stand still. Neither the destination nor the point of departure are important. People often find themselves midway on a journey they had no intention of taking and that began they are not exactly sure where.

...onto film? How in the hell can Lymie, the speaker, ever be really captured outside a reader's head? So we know what kind of filmmaker we're with in B., and it ain't Quentin Tarantino. Did Wallace Shawn ever direct a film? It would've been a lot like the narrator's films, I'll wager.

As he is in B. for the second time with a film almost certainly receiving an award, I was a touch surprised that Maestro (the tag that everyone uses to refer to and address the narrator, ugh) didn't have his husband and son with him. They are there in spirit, I suppose; the Maestro does refer to them. But the principal story here is about Cosima, a novelist who meets the Maestro quite by accident (or is it an accident?). Her long, intimate ramble and rambling chat with him becomes the center of the Maestro's world. He is captivated, both by Cosima and her story of a dead and gone artist lover of hers. He does what I think all truly driven artists do: He absorbs Cosima's story, Cosima's love; he appropriates them, in more modern terms. After all, he's decided with the arrogance of his sex and class that he's Going To Make This Film, the life and art of these lovers. So what that Cosima doesn't want him to? Who owns the facts?

The Maestro, then, is accustomed to taking what he wants. It's also obvious in his creepily Hitchcockesque insertion of himself into his lead actors' (from The Folded Leaf, the novel he's filmed, remember?) new off-screen romance. He's very benign about it, but it's there, and it reads badly in the twenty-first century. As it's intended to do....

The unbearably lush sensory world of Italy, its food and its lavish sensual feast of a landscape, is all I can picture after this read. The parties and events surrounding the Maestro's film release aren't very interesting to me, and luckily receded into the background as I read, but I'm attuned to the food and wine descriptions. (If I were a dog, I'd be reward-oriented in training.)

The stylistic choice to make each chapter a paragraph makes sense when one twigs to the fact this is a récit. All speech not the Maestro's is reported by him, is heard through his ears. We're always inside his head, always with his eyes doing our's actually like we're the audience at the movie of his life. In fact, based on what he says, I'm willing to bet the Maestro's a narcissist on the ragged edge of pre-disorder-level presentation. It wouldn't take much to shove him into a full-blown clinical case.

The simple saving grace for the Maestro is, I suspect, that he's a storyteller by profession and passion.
Too much of life is given to analysis. I agree with that, I said, more than you realise. That's not to say I want to live blindly, maestro, more that you have to give yourself up to the day in order to live it. I learned a lesson from reading that novel. You're not always in control of when and how things end. What you can control is whether you embrace the moment.

You're not in control of how things end...but the author, the auteur, is. And there's no better place to be than that. The truth is the Maestro will always assume control of wherever he is, whenever he is there.

The main response I predict most people will have to the story is formal: Many are the folk who do not like absent dialogue tags and paragraphs that go on for pages. These are not the readers for Govinden's strange and lovely artwork. If you enjoyed Milkman with its men called things like Maybe-boyfriend and the neverending sentence with "the fact that" as a kind of punctuation in Lucy Elliman's Ducks, Newburyport, you'll be fine with this read. In fact it's downright simple in comparison to those two, or their French ancestors Pinget or Proust.

If those aren't happy memories for you, this isn't likely to be either. If you're willing to put in some concentration I predict this story in its very 21st century preoccupations with story, ownership, misogyny, and the Cult of the Creator, you'll like this read a lot.



And Other Stories
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3? 5? 9? stars of five

The Publisher Says: From the author of The Exhibition of Persephone Q, a chilling fable about the necessity—and impossibility—of productivity, art, and love in an age governed by capitalist logic.

On the eve of the Occupy Wall Street protests, C is flat broke. Once a renowned textile artist, she’s now the sole proprietor of an arts supply store in Lower Manhattan. Divorced, alone, at loose ends, C is stuck with a struggling business, a stack of bills, a new erotic interest in her oldest girlfriend, and a persistent hallucination in the form of a rogue garden gnome with a pointed interest in systems collapse…

C needs to put her medical debt and her sex life in order, but how to make concrete plans with this little visitor haunting her apartment, sporting a three-piece suit and delivering impromptu lectures on the vulnerability of the national grid? Moreover, what's all this computer code doing in the story of her life? And do the answers to all of C's questions lie with an eco-hacktivist cabal threatening to end modern life as we know it?

Replaying recent history through a distorting glass, The Visitors is a mordantly funny tour through through a world where not only civic infrastructure but our darkest desires (not to mention our novels) are vulnerable to malware; where mythical creatures talk like Don DeLillo; where love is little more than a blip in our metadata. It peers into How We Got Here and asks What We Do Next, charting the last days of a broken status quo as the path is cleared for something new.


My Review
: All progress, so it seems, is coupled to regression elsewhere. — Author JESSI JEZEWSKA STEVENS, The Visitors

A Hymn of Praise to the Great Publisher AND OTHER STORIES, which dwelleth in the Sheffield of Reeds, the Rulers of Literature! Thou art the first-born fruit of Stefan Tobler's psychic womb. Thou art they whose brows are lofty. Thou hast gained possession of the Formula of Publishing, Publishing = Supply + Demand + Magic, and used this with the rank and dignity of the divine forebears Knopf, Calder, and Busby. Thy literary nous is wide-spread. Thy existence shall resound in the welkin of words. Grant thou to me glory in reading and breadth in comprehension in the form of an unbenighted reader, and the power to pass in through and to pass out from the bewilderingly dense and mannerèd prose of this, thy author JESSI JEZEWSKA STEVENS, whose words possess humor and trenchance yet surpass my ability to grasp them.

Homage to thee, O Progenitors of Those En Avant. I have fought for thee, I am one of those who wisheth for words of wisdom and meaning beyond those that make the women tear out their hair. I unbolt the door on the Shrine of Feminism in TERFless lands. I enter in among and come forth with the Goddesses of Literary Experimentation on the day of the destruction of James Patterson and J.K. Rowling. I look upon the hidden things in THE VISITORS and recite the words of the liturgy of Rachel Cusk.

Hail, O Ye Who Make Perfect Souls to enter into the House of Woolf and Stein, make ye the well-instructed soul of the Reader Mudge. Let him hear even as ye hear; let him have sight even as ye have sight; let him stand up under this onslaught of ideas even as ye have stood up; let him take his seat even as ye have taken your seats, for he is mightily worn out.

Hail, O Ye Who Open Up The Way, who act as guides through the thickets of recursion and coding-inflected ideas, to the perfect souls in the House of Literature. May he enter into the House of AND OTHER STORIES with boldness, because there is no trace of comprehension in him. May there be no opposition made to him, nor may he be sent out again therefrom for his dimwittedness. May he not be found light in the Balance, and may the Feather of Book-Ma'at decide his case.

with my most sincere apologies to the shade of E.A. Wallis Budge, translator of The Book of Going Forth By Day, to whose prose I have done great and grievous violence; and to JESSI JEZEWSKA STEVENS, whose erudition and verve with language dwarf my own limited capacities to comprehend them