Friday, November 29, 2019

THE FORBIDDEN STARS, third and presumed to be last of the Axiom trilogy...but plenty o' room for more!

(Axiom #3)
Angry Robot Books
$8.99 mass market paperback, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The ancient alien gods are waking up, and there's only one spaceship crew ready to stop them, in this dazzling space opera sequel to The Wrong Stars and The Dreaming Stars.

Aliens known as the Liars gave humanity access to the stars through twenty-nine wormholes. They didn't mention that other aliens, the ancient, tyrannical - but thankfully sleeping - Axiom occupied all the other systems. When the twenty-ninth fell silent, humanity chalked it up to radical separatists and moved on. But now, on board the White Raven, Captain Callie and her crew of Axiom-hunters receive word that the twenty-ninth colony may have met a very different fate. With their bridge generator they skip past the wormhole, and discover another Axiom project, fully awake, and poised to pour through the wormhole gate into all the worlds of humanity...


My Review
: We're not under any illusions about the Axiom anymore, are we? They're the xenocidal monsters of which nightmares were first brewed, they're cruel and thoughtless and smugly, scratch that, they're oblivious to lesser life's reality and so find nothing or no one convincingly sentient except themselves. They're even working, while in hibernation, on changing the fundamental constants of the Universe! And all so they can prolong their own nasty existences (and those of some slaves to do the scut work, one supposes) in complete disregard of the fact that this fundamental alteration would destroy whatever life there already is in it. In spite of all that, here's Captain Callie Machedo and Ashok the engineer, the White Raven's Scotty, met in the middle of blowing the (apparently awakening, shudder) Axiom's shit up some more!

Some people don't want to live.

Or rather, some people are willing to risk death so that the Universe and its untold trillions of life-forms can, and will, live. An altogether more noble formulation of the same set of behaviors, no? Callie and Ashok are in an Axiom travel hub to destroy it for the Benefactor, and in the process steal something they really, really shouldn't have. The final day of the war is upon us. (That reference will make sense when you read the book.) Do your utmost and be happy with that, not certain of any particular outcome. That's working well for Callie and Elena in their settling-in love affair, for Ashok the 27th century's version of a tattoo addict, for Lantern the double-agent Liar, for Drake-and-Janice the Universe's most unusual conjoined beings.

That makes for a happy and fun read, right? Well...mostly...I'm never going to reconcile myself to the infodumping that the series contains in abundance, but what I realized about that is that the info is entertaining and necessary there one is. It's a fact that cannot now be changed. I am still happy with the low-heat romance between Callie and Elena, since I read other subgenres of space opera for the sexytimes I crave on occasion. I was pining for more of Lantern, to be honest, but the story couldn't hold more of "her" without being seriously baggy at the knees. We're introduced to the Benefactor through his servant Kaustikos, "the one who burns," in the form of a floating basketball...I was picturing Sputnik the whole time and quietly chuckling...that delivers excellent intel exactly once and then goes into minor-character mode. The purpose of this itchy lapse becomes apparent. It wasn't a joy, waiting so long for it to eventuate, but it did and I got it. No other way to accomplish that plot thread's resolution.

But most of all, I've been pining for some details about Drake-and-Janice, the mashup person. How did this weirdness occur? How, in practical terms, did two humans get spliced into one (hitherto invisible in-story) entity? That, my friends, is the subject of an extended infodump delivered from page 269 to page 304. It wasn't necessarily deft, but it was *fascinating* and I enjoyed the Drake-and-Janice story as much as I'd hoped to. So much was clearer about how human individuality and individuation seems utterly natural to us but would present a serious puzzle for truly alien beings...rather like we humans find it puzzling to look at fossils and reconstruct the dead being's life from them. Drake and Janice were still within spitting distance of being alive after a nasty space accident; the life they share now was granted them by miracle-working super-healer white Liars who happened to be in the right place at the right time to reconstruct them. Only they got it wrong, and for the first time we're let in on how that felt all around, what that meant to Drake-and-Janice as entities made one but still alive, what identity and practical problems that's presented them.

One big coincidence, no, the passing immortals with a healing jones being there? But that's how Life is sometimes. Stuff, weird random stuff, happens; you're never the same afterwards, but you're well and truly alive and now what? Hence the melded pilots' skills being used by a very live-and-let-live Captain whose essential human decency means they're safe and they're respected for their skills but left alone to live as they like and/or can.

But wait, there's more! Callie and the White Raven are tasked by the Benefactor, whose contact with them is always through different cloak-and-dagger means, with the solution of the silencing of the Vanir system. Planets that the Liars, those "truthteller" cultists secretly still in service of their departed Axiom masters, had sold the humans rights to colonize, which subsequently went out of touch with the rest of humanity. When supply ships, then rescue missions, then military forces all vanished into the silent system, the system was pretty much written off. Human curiosity hates dangling threads...Callie gets the Benefactor's huge pre-payment for expenses...the crew agrees that their unique possession of a wormhole generator not, like the gateways the Liars sold them, fixed to any particular part of spacetime, will make this expedition both satisfying and enriching. What could possibly go wrong? They hold all the surprise-dealing cards!

Nope. Nothing goes easily...for long, anyway...and more Liars, singularly unappealing red specimens yclept "the Exalted," are slavering to get hold of the fresh specimens that Callie and Co. represent in their grand master plan to make the now-ailing as well as hibernating Axiom safe and sound in the newly dangerous Universe they plan to cooperatively destroy together. Excitement ensues, and I won't detail it as this is the whole point of reading space opera.

Suffice it to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and the goodwill of super-healers is a great thing to have in your back pocket. The ending, the point at which the conflicts end, was deeply satisfying, and the main villain's purpose and identity is at the root of Evil's Comeuppance. That's always a recipe for satisfaction in my book.

The series' threads are woven together satisfyingly. Callie will be one busy human lady for, well, ever; Elena her beloved xenobiologist-turned-medical-doctor will be there with her; the crew, from newly repaired though still conjoined Drake-and-Janice to Ashok the body-modder's ultimate modification to Lantern the Liar to Shall the AI, the White Raven and Glauketas, their asteroid home, will act as nucleation points for a whole new world of free and potent humans. It's a pretty satisfying way to say farewell to the world of the Axiom.

Unless, of course, we're treated to more after Author Pratt's had a lie-down....

Thursday, November 28, 2019

TWO free-to-read online short stories for US folks' trip home from overeating & fighting with relatives!

Author Joshua Ferris reading; from his Facebook page

Good Legs by Joshua Ferris (visit his website!)

Rating: 3.5* of five

Read it here free. You get four free reads a month from The New Yorker; this one is worth burning one of them.

See this? The Old Flame isn't worth the stress:
Then my old flame graduated early and was gone. There were rumors of a new boyfriend and a life in Ireland. I didn’t miss her. By then, I was in this terrible on-off thing with Sisyphus, who kept dragging me up a pretty blond hill and hurtling me down.
Because there's always another Old Flame. Author Ferris, winner of the 2008 PEN/Hemingway Award for Then We Came to the End, clearly has thought the modern condition through; he writes the voice of the Millennials faultlessly, musically, and honestly. The obsession of a young man is not (solely) sex, it's the being-ness of his sex partners, the odd and quirky and endlessly shifting kaleidoscope of characteristics and qualities that occur and recur in his solipsism's background. He maintains through it all a sense that The Other is just ever so slightly unreal, is reducible to A Title. Like most all the young men I've ever known, from every generation I've ever met.

It's wonderful to read the thoughts I've had all my life, the wonder and the bewilderment and the anxious unreality of existence, come from another brain. It's incredible to me that anyone can read a short story of this economy and precision and not instantly fall in love with the form.


from the August 1953 edition of Science Fiction-Plus magazine

Spaceborn Generations by Clifford D. Simak

Rating: 3.5* of five

Not for nothing was Simak a journalist/popularizer of science. This generation-ship tale is short, so doesn't go into a lot of details about *how* a thousand-year voyage through space would be accomplished without human maintenance of its workings, and how it came to be that twentieth-century English was the lingua franca of the Ship, and whether the Ship's breeding program took account of skin color variations, and why The Little Woman was still in her place...the list goes on.

But what I see in Simak's story is the basic story I read SF for. It is about the tiny little prisons Humankind builds and calls Paradise. It is about the unquestioning and overly trusting way we accept what is given and hunger only for more, not radically and materially different. Novelty is more important than innovation...gossip more important than erudition. Wake up, Author Simak shouted at the Folk of 1953 who read this story, Life is short so wake up!

His fix-up novel, City, was in much the same vein. The Earth is subject to disasters and cataclysms, but savvy Humankind was somehow or other ready for that and hijinks ensued. As I think we can imagine, since Simak lived through the Cold War (died only three years before it ended, if we take 1991's collapse of the Soviet Union as The End), that was more a triumph of hope over experience. But his fiction, never precisely deft in execution, was always aimed at making a point about doing your own best, convincing others to do theirs, making the best of the stuff you had to hand. Teddy Roosevelt's formulation would've appealed to Simak, I think: "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

And that's all the Folk on the Ship in this story have done. It isn't a perfect world, at least not to us looking in at it, but they're still alive, and Humanity can always chug along somehow. But Mr. Simak, what I wouldn't give to ramp your ideas about women above the helpmeet/homemaker/uterus bearer. Mary Hoff, who is Mrs. Hero and no more than that, sees a whole new world spread before her barely comprehending eyes and her first thought is, "can we have a baby now?" She's *asking*permission*from*her*husband* to have a baby on a wide-open new planet. That's just...ICK is nowhere near strong enough a response.

Feminists are duly warned: Probably not enough substance here, in storytelling terms, to outweigh the deep, dark, dank cave of regression Simak lived in. I'm not resentful that I read the piece. I won't go out of my way to urge you to. But Simak's view of Humanity seems to accord with mine: Pretty damned lazy, really happy to remain stupid, and full of hate and spite, but love 'em or leave 'em.

Does the Shipping News cover off-planet departures?

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

It's #Booksgiving again! A combination of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and Advent and Jolabokaflod!

As 2019 wanes, taking with it another in an apparently unending annual flotilla of boatloads of misery, trouble, strife, and negativity, let's focus on something much more fun: #Booksgiving! Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, I'm here to suggest some literary delights whose (not always) joyful tidings will make the Night Before Christmas a bit less frenetic: Give everyone in your gift-giving circle a special book to read right then and there, in the midst of life, all together.

Wikipedia gives us a wee bit of background on the Icelandic custom of giving a book as a gift to your family and friends at Yuletide. Like here, at least among those I call my friends and family...the difference is the Icelandic friends and family like the custom. Decidedly not like many, many people I know.
Iceland isn't like the US in any way that I can think of: no mass shootings, low poverty, socialized medicine, but most importantly the fact that, in a lifetime, one in ten Icelanders will write and have published at least one book. Appearances and Kindle sales to the contrary, that can't happen in the US or there would 35 million writers getting their stuff published. Think of the deforestation implicit in that thankfully unrealized statistic. Agents and publishers will sigh exasperatedly and moan "there already ARE 35 million Americans writing books and they all have MY address!"

I promise that it only feels that way.

Iceland also has an annual book catalog, according to a 2018 Books from Scotland article, which explains the idea as follows:
Every year since [the end of World War Two], the Icelandic book trade has published a printed catalogue – called Bókatíðindi (‘Book Bulletin’, in English) – that is sent to every household in the country in mid-November during the Reykjavik Book Fair. People use the catalogue to order books to give friends and family for Christmas.

During the festive season, gifts are opened on 24 December and, by tradition, everyone reads the books they have been given straight away, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale called jólabland.
I got nothin' on the (appropriately named, IMO) non-alcoholic ale. I mean, why bother? But hey, that's just me.

But is the US actually so different? Most books in our market are published around gift-giving holidays, too. Look up any statistical source you can think of and you'll see the jaw-dropping surge in sales in each and every segment around Yuletide. Black Friday got its name from more than the salesdroids' moody misery on the horrible, horrible day; it's the day that almost all retailers stem their losses and go into black balance-sheet ink. And at least one organization in the US is is setting out to move the Book Flood tradition Stateside.
And it's not like there are no initiatives to encourage the bookish to share their addiction in the Holiday season. Take Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which is described in this here piece. An initiative that Dolly, fourth child of twelve, began to give children in the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada, and Australia one book of their very own each month. It's curated carefully to be age appropriate, and it's an admirable extension of a program she began in 1995 for kids in her home patch of Eastern Tennessee. I suggest that you all put some money into this, or any other, outreach for underserved children to get books. After all, the Jesuits' founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, famously said, "Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man." Knew his onions, did that old guy. He stole from the best, seeing as Aristotle said it first. You can tell because there's neither hide nor hair of "woman" in there, nor any sign that either of those old white men even sensed their absence. I'd recast it as "...I will give you the adult," but purists would be as vocal as feminists in their scorn. One cannot win.

But let's dream big. The tradition of giving a book as a much-desired present...the encouragement to read it that very night...there are some of us who want that family life and now we have a model for how it should look.
Why shouldn't we, book lovers, embrace this vaguely distasteful-in-the-aggregate behavior of being good little consumers? Let's repurpose it. Let's take one tiny facet of Iceland's excellent book culture and bring it here. The Christmas Book Flood isn't directly translatable, and anyway focuses on the end of the process, the gifting that's always so fun.

Let's celebrate the process, shall we? Let's have Booksgiving! Starting on *shudder* Black Friday, let's think about what books we'll flood the tree skirt with on Book Flood Eve. I'll give you some ideas from my 2019 and earlier reading to include in your purchases. Simply click on the tag #Booksgiving" below and the entire list from all years will magically chronological order, never fear.

Happy Booksgiving!

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A VIKING FOR YULE, silly fun for the gingerbread-latte drinkers


Self published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: AFTER SAM'S GRANDFATHER nearly died in a blizzard one year ago, Sam has panic attacks in snow storms. So where does his friend Jackie propose they spend the holidays, as the last stop on their trip around the world?

Iceland. Of course.

But there's more in Iceland than snow. When Arnar, a handsome Icelandic man, offers to escort Sam on a several-day tour of the beautiful countryside, they soon find themselves drawn to each other. But Arnar is firmly rooted in his native soil, and Sam has to return to the US in a week to care for his ailing grandfather.

Suddenly, Yule can’t last nearly long enough.

NOTE: Though this novel includes characters from A Cop for Christmas, it is a standalone adventure. It isn’t necessary to read A Cop for Christmas first.

My Review: So sweet little (he's like 5'4") punkin Sam, a bit player in Author Fessenden's prior book A Cop for Christmas, gets his own love story! Jackie, the series (loose, but still counts) non-resident Auntie Mame, whisks Sam away on a world tour after some terrifying stuff happens to him (revealing what is a spoiler for the first book). True to Auntie-form, she hurls him at any number of eligible gay men in the various countries they visit. His timidity and inexperience with the world's many ways of being are, by the time the pair wash up on Iceland's shores for Yuletide, worn into a certain facility if not comfort with the strangeness he's now expecting and encountering.

But there at the international airport is Arnar. Long blond hair, studly muscles, surly attitude...even towards his "Aunt Jackie," whom he's known most of his life. And, if Sam's sharpening gaydar is any guide, a Friend of Dorothy's. Lovely! In every sense. Well, except the whole surly part.

Arnar, for his own part, is mourning the end of his relationship with Stefan (never met but despised by all Arnar's friends). He's hurting but he's a man, so he Notices Sam, being utterly charmed by his ears (of all things)...just not ready to let go of his sadz over the jerk Stefan.

The usual hijinks ensue, as they must in category romances. The Icelandic countryside and December weather play huge roles in the action. The elements are a big part of Arnar and Sam's falling in love with each other. The adventure that, as is ordinary for men, serves to bond them to each other, is largely dependent on weather. It is December in Iceland, after all. And the trope of hero-faces-down-fears is very much present.

But here we come to the crux of my problem with this lovely little bagatelle: By the numbers-ness. I don't believe for a second that, in this book's first draft, these men were the ages they're presented as being, ie thirtyish. They act like early-to-middle twentysomethings. They have packs of friends, just like early-to-middle twenties folk do; they have sullen fits, which frankly know no age but are usually less prevalent in the thirtyish bracket. They Have Adventures, not planning to do things that'll put them at risk like one does in the earlier twenties; they make HUGE life decisions on a whim, and that my dears is a dead give-away that they're nowhere near thirty. Sam has his sole remaining family member, ill and frail Grampy, to care for and about. He has also gone on an around-the-world trip for pretty much a year, at Jackie's behest and on her dime. I don't know about y'all, but that would make me wonder about the sanity of a thirtyish man; not a hair turned in a, say, twenty-five-year-old's case.

And the ending. Hm. While we need the de rigueur HEA, this one strikes me as...forced. It'd be a great last scene in a film. There's an epilogue that contextualizes it, but that's just needs context.

Still! I can't say I read these books for their monumental and earth-shattering insights into character or innovations with the style-book. I read them for fun, and because I can tick off the trope boxes, I don't need to work at comprehending what I'm reading. This is a huge help to me while I'm in the process of getting this miserable apnea problem handled.

Friday, November 22, 2019

TAINTED WITNESS: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives, or #MeToo didn't just *happen*

TAINTED WITNESS: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives

Columbia University Press
$21.99 various ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1991, Anita Hill brought testimony and scandal into America's living rooms during televised Senate confirmation hearings in which she detailed the sexual harassment she had suffered at the hands of Clarence Thomas. The male Senate Judiciary Committee refused to take Hill seriously and the veracity of Hill's claims were sullied in the mainstream media. Hill was defamed as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty," and Thomas went on to be confirmed. The tainting of Hill and her testimony are part of a larger social history in which women find themselves caught up in a system that refuses to believe what they say. The Anita Hill case shows how a tainted witness is not who someone is, but what someone can become.

Why are women so often considered unreliable witnesses to their own experience? How are women discredited in legal courts and in courts of public opinion? Why is women's testimony so often mired in controversies fueled by histories of slavery and colonialism? Tainted Witness takes up these questions within a rich archive, including Anita Hill's testimony as well as Rigoberta Menchú Tum's account of genocide in Guatemala; Jamaica Kincaid's literary witnessing in Autobiography of My Mother; and news coverage of such stories as Nafissatou Diallo's claim that Dominique Strauss-Kahn raped her. Bringing together legal, literary, and feminist frameworks, Leigh Gilmore provides provocative readings of what happens when women's testimony is discredited. Throughout, Gilmore demonstrates how testimony crosses jurisdictions, publics, and the unsteady line between truth and fiction in search of justice.


My Review
: This is an academic work of depth and authority on the ever-vexing topic of what leads Society (my capital) to treat a woman's word as suspect, especially about her own experiences and her own life.

Essentially, women are treated with contempt and rage by men in general. Their words, therefore, when spoken about men and to other men, must be considered in that context...why would she lie, versus when she speaks, she lies. I am *grossly* oversimplifying the latter, and the author does not present her facts about the former, but this is a formulation that gets to the heart of my take-away from the book.

The additional "defect" of Blackness mars a woman's credibility within the white patriarchal systems of "justice" and "fact-finding" because "you know how they are," the loudly quiet evocation of all the slurs, lies, and oppressions used to discredit Black people. Anita Hill's accusations against Clarence Thomas are delved into with some depth. Thirty years later, I still boil when I think of Dr. Hill's vile treatment by the conservative Old Boys' Club in the Senate. (I assert most, if not quite all, Senators are conservative, or were in 1991 anyway.)

Perhaps the most cogent argument Author Gilmore presents in service of her case against social attitudes towards women's bearing witness is the case that neoliberal culture has privileged stories of Overcoming, of Beating the Odds, the System, as opposed to the more realistic way of viewing the System as flawed, broken, unfair, all by design. That design is put in place to keep the powerful protected, and the powerful are white and male. Narratives examining the system's failures are downplayed where they can't be dismissed or vilified. It's that women/the disadvantaged aren't trying hard enough! Look at {insert neoliberal here, eg JD Vance or James Frey}! They overcame their obstacles! Try harder, Jamaica Kincaid, Rigoberta Menchú!

This is balderdash, of course, and the author briskly defangs the "arguments" for it. A pair of examples of this, as well as the author's academic writing style:
A tainted witness is not who someone is but who someone can become in the process of bringing an account into the public sphere.
Tying the evolution of #BlackLivesMatter primarily to its responses to a series of killings of African-American men and boys by police officers, as some articles have, obscures the feminist focus on {B}lack lives broadly. By refusing a presentist framing of the event, #BlackLivesMatter is not, as its founders make clear, only about what happened but about how to frame it, how to bear witness to histories of the present, and how to look at images of death, grief, and protest as a form of ethical engagement.

These are not unclear or grammatically flawed statements; neither are they elegant, nor rhetorically exciting. They are true, unsparingly honest, and effective in making their cases.

I longed for more than that. It wasn't an easy read, it was in many ways an unpleasant book to read due to its trenchant indictment of privileged peoples and people's cynical, lazy, and cruel means of disempowering and devaluing The Others to maintain their privilege. I'm seeking a rousing call to arms, though, and while I wasn't promised this when I chose this book to read and review, I had set my hopes on it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

GHOSTLY DEMARCATIONS: Stories, linked novel-in-stories with the Halloween Spirit


Sagging Meniscus Press
$19.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: Everyone is constantly admonishing our narrator to keep quiet: "You're full of bull hockey, college boy...Shut up and drink your beer." Or, "'Shut up,' Michelle replied. 'Shut up,' Michelle repeated." Or, "Don't look up. At least don't shout when you do. She's here, on the balcony." Or, "'Shit.' Sarah spit this out like a too-hot cinnamon ball, pulled me off the dental chair, and led me to the closet with the skeleton, shushing me with her fingers." Or, "Hush, be still. Tacete, tacete." Everyone admonishes him, when all he wants to do is shout the wonders, the horrors, the terrors that he and his older adoptive brother Galen face as one spiritual incursion after another manifests in their lives, moving from trickster poltergeists to forlornly wandering ghosts to intent fetches to avenging revenants. Perhaps, instead of admonishing him, everyone would do better to heed his early, youthful deliberation: "I never heard his voice again after that night. If we humans could always recognize the last words we were ever to hear from each person we knew or even met, our lives would perch as fragile indeed, gathering tragedy every listening moment to lean over a dark cellar of dark farewells."


My Review
: A further disclaimer: I've known Joe for over a quarter century. As he will somewhat sniffily tell you, this has never stopped me from letting him have it with both barrels if he dares to do less than his best. So, everybody clear on who did what to whom? Good. Let's begin:

This is a storytelling format that I'm fond of, the linked short-story collection or "novel in stories." Joe plays with identity in a lot of his fiction, and this format allows the issue to develop without ever making its presence feel forced.

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

Galen's Mountain Child starts right off with creepy hillbilly ghosties of abandoned burned-alive kids, mothers without maternal instincts, and *retch* kittens.
His mom had been dating men starting the year after Galen's dad died and she hadn't been the gospel of kindness. Or maybe she was the gospel to the men, but not even the epistle to Galen.
True voice, I'm old enough to have heard exactly those locutions from older relatives. 4 stars

I Am the Egg

Kids Know

Angel's Wings


Madonna on a Country Road

Faithful Companion

The Mansion, the Chandelier, and the Belle


A Red Phase

Tit for Tat

The Perfect Ghost Story, Plus One

The Widow with the Hookah

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Louie, Louie and the Blonde Hippie

Ms. Sylvia's Home Care

Truly Mine

Friday, November 8, 2019

YOUNG MAN FROM THE PROVINCES, gay life as a sex toy in the pre-Stonewall world


University of Minnesota Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Young, intelligent, and handsome, Alan Helms left a brutal midwestern childhood for New York City in 1955. Denied a Rhodes scholarship because of his sexual orientation, he soon became an object of desire in a gay underground scene frequented by, among many others, Noel Coward, Leonard Bernstein, and Marlene Dietrich. In this unusually vivid and sensitive account, Helms describes the business of being a sex object and its psychological and physical toll.
"Riveting."- New York Times Book Review

"Extraordinary and elegantly written. A record of a gay world that has virtually disappeared over the past twenty-five years of liberation and fifteen years of AIDS." -Boston Globe

"A beautifully written memoir. Helms sped through the celebrity-packed fast lanes, but he has learned how to stand back and get some perspective." -Los Angeles Times

"Sublimely funny, engaging, pathetic, highly literary, and painful to read. Helms seems like a gay Everyman whose quest for self-knowledge, respect, and contentment in this contemptuous world mirrors that of many other marginalized people." -Bloomsbury Review

Alan Helms is professor of literature at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.


My Review
: Beloved Boston cultural institution Alan Helms had a wildly exciting past! See the film! Admire his art collection, appreciate his cultured and elegant way of speaking, his breadth of cultural knowledge, and his charming sweetness.

What does a young, abused man from flyover country do the moment he realizes he's queer? RUN! Get to New York City as soon as possible. He got to Columbia University in 1955, leaving behind a life in Indianapolis, Indiana, that could charitably be described as "uncongenial." A father who thought his son was a bitter many of us queer boys can relate to that...a mother whose situation wasn't a lot better than his, a younger brother whose close brush with death was the single moment in his childhood when peace reigned. None of this is a recipe for a healthy adulthood...and add in the author's understandable, if off-putting, self-absorbtion and you get a difficult-to-empathize-with narrator.

But he was So. Beautiful. Look at that face on the cover! Hoo-ee!

And the awfulness of be so pretty and so readily available and so snobby, who can claim to be surprised that he wasn't a pleasant person? His sexual awakening came at the price of being raped. His family life prepared him for a life of abuse. He dived into it in the glamorous world of closeted gay life pre-Stonewall. Pretty sexually available intelligent boys found innumerable lovers, and the author wasn't about to say no. (I totally relate to this and would've done precisely the same in his shoes. Damn the bad luck of not being pretty!) So a decade and a half passed in what I imagine was a golden haze...this book's largest part. It's a bit less charming to me than it might be to a younger reader. I look at the wreckage he glosses over and think, "there's the real story."

Yes, sleeping with famous Hollywood stars and titled Eurotrash is all very well. But the people you stood up, the ones whose parties weren't quite glam enough that you said you'd attend, and so on and so forth? How did you sleep, look in the mirror, launch yourself at the next big fish in your hifalutin' pond without thinking about them?

The Fall took place when he was thirtyish, and some semblance of human feeling broke the ice he'd cultivated to keep his agony at bay and under the surface of a freezing cold lake he called his heart. Escape to Boston and the tender mercies of a shrink who began the process of waking the author up from his frozen state. Then it happened: His body aged. He wasn't the hot young muffin anymore; he wasn't even visible to the hot young muffins. That had to be a bad, bad day.

Now, let me not try to hide my glee here. This event has occurred in my life, too. I can not imagine how much worse it was for a formerly gorgeous creature, feted and celebrated and wined and dined, to be cut off from that gushing geyser of distractions. Luckily for his sanity, Helms had a brain and a deep love for the life of the mind that he'd never left behind or neglected. While learning what he'd never known, that feelings are best felt in the moment and not in retrospect, I'm sure he left yet more carnage in his wake. But the fact that no one ever killed him means that he learned enough to at least fake his way through professional, if not personal, relationships. So hope still shines for him to pull his head out of his ass and recognize that, in his swan-paddle through youth, he got into some ugly emotional habits that would be wise for him to shed before he's patted in the face with a shovel and 120 cubic feet of dirt dropped on him.

I guess it shows that I don't like the man too much. Yes, part of it is envy: I would've LOVED to live among those glittering parties and glamorous people, and I'm jealous that he won nature's looks lottery. But more of it is the sense that grew and grew as I read his (ampersand-laden) memoir that he wasn't sharing his journey with me.

He was bragging that it happened.

I suppose I would too, and that is a disappointing self-revelation that elicits deep sadness in my shallows. Read the book, o ye queer boys over 50 to relive a lovely, dead time when we were few but fabulous; QUILTBAG youth, especially young and pretty ones, definitely think about your history; y'all straight folks, mm, on balance I'd say not unless your Gay BFF approves it for your personal tastes.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

THE NAKED BLOGGER OF CAIRO, necessary cruelty to my friends who need to wake up before it's too late


Harvard University Press
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Uprisings spread like wildfire across the Arab world from 2010 to 2012, fueled by a desire for popular sovereignty. In Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, protesters flooded the streets and the media, voicing dissent through slogans, graffiti, puppetry, videos, and satire that called for the overthrow of dictators and the regimes that sustained them.

Investigating what drives people to risk everything to express themselves in rebellious art, The Naked Blogger of Cairo uncovers the creative insurgency at the heart of the Arab uprisings. While commentators have stressed the role of social media, Marwan M. Kraidy shows that the essential medium of political expression was not cell phone texts or Twitter but something more fundamental: the human body. Brutal governments that coerced citizens through torture and rape found themselves confronted with the bodies of protesters, burning with defiance and boldly violating taboos. Activists challenged authority in brazen acts of self-immolation, nude activism, and hunger strikes. The bodies of dictators became a focus of ridicule. A Web series presented Syria's Bashar al-Assad as a pathetic finger puppet, while cartoons and videos spread a meme of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak as a regurgitating cow.

The rise of digital culture complicates our understanding of the human body in revolutionary times. As Kraidy argues, technology publicizes defiance, but the body remains the vital nexus of physical struggle and digital communication, destabilizing distinctions between "the real world" and virtual reality, spurring revolutionary debates about the role of art, and anchoring Islamic State's attempted hijacking of creative insurgency.


My Review
: At a very low point in an ever-sinking US-Arab world relationship, this book could not have been a more timely read. The people the US Government left to twist in the wind...many of them Iraqis promised asylum in return for "betraying" their home country...all understand viscerally a fact the US and its soft, spoiled citizenry need to remember that they simply do not know: Tyrants and dictators use human bodies as propaganda tools to enforce their dominance.

The Gestapo and Putin's former employers, the KGB, are the most famous of these hideous organizations in the US. Worldwide, they are joined by our very own CIA, as well as innumerable unofficial, quasi-official, and openly governmental "state security" apparatuses. (Well, they can be enumerated, but I don't have the stomach for it.) The terror industry is thriving. Ask the poor souls who survived Abu Ghraib's horrors how they feel about the fact that the private contractors never faced prosecution or had to return one dime of the money the US Government paid them in spite of the fact many participated in the abuses. Ask the Kurds on the sharp end of Turkish weapons how their bodies are in danger of harm from a powerful, protected, well-armed state terrorism perpetrator of long standing. Human bodies, equipped with human souls, are routinely savaged and maimed by those whose idea of peace is best compared to the grave: Silent, dark, and unbroken.

At the dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch, in which climate change is a given and planning for it a joke, one small corner of the planet that we call the internet (no longer capitalized, please note) has taken a small degree of risk away from confronting tyrants. Author Kraidy, a most extraordinarily august person, with Directorates and Carnegie Fellowships and more under his belt, has taken a close look at the first Revolutions to be tweeted: The Arab Spring of 2010-2012. As we're now in the grips of a new political use of Twitter, it's deeply and rewardingly instructive to read this measured analysis of the role that social media did and did not play in this popular uprising.

The core of the book is the idea that, in a digital or analog revolution, the human body is central to our idea of the stakes, the purpose, and the desired result of any revolution. Seems sort of silly to say's a given that a revolution is meant to free some group from the constraints put on them by another, which of necessity means the body is involved as it (at a minimum) carries around the wetware telling us we're not free. But extend the idea of revolution with its subtexts of battles and skirmishes of flesh into cyberspace and then what?
Aliaa al Mahdi in her native element, the internet
This photo ignited the entire Arab world, though I must say that it looks pretty darn tame to me. Far more provocative, in my opinion at least, is her protest photo in the pose of Lilith:
Her hearkening back to the Ur-protestor, the woman who refused to be subservient to a man and was cast off and out for her insolence, seems much more a statement of her principles and her point that a mere "beaver shot."

Author Kraidy then refines that daring act of the Naked Blogger into a more distilled and powerful meaning as part of "creative insurgency:"
...the notion of creative insurgency {explores} the mixture of activism and artistry characteristic of revolutionary expression and tracks the social transformation of activism into Art and ensuing controversies. At the heart of these processes is the human body as tool, medium, symbol, and metaphor...activists have deployed a rich array of art and media in fierce propaganda wars against murderous dictators. Mining the past for resonant symbols, creative insurgents execute daring physical performances, catchy slogans, memorable graffiti, and witty videos.
You'll need to be prepared for a long and upsetting journey into the hatefulness that our world never seems to run short of, I warn you now. That it is a view mediated by the art it has produced is not, I'm sorry to say, in any way a diminution of the horrors awaiting the bodies of dissenters across the globe. Author Kraidy, in his role as Chair in Global Media, Politics and Culture of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, is a man whose knowledge of the topic is deep and broad. His eternally-at-war Beirut childhood, and an adult return to head the American Studies department of the American University there while the Arab Spring was springing, had to make him extra sensitive to the topic. The art world, so dismissive of Arabic art and artists while celebratory of the reductive and racist Orientalism (most famously excoriated forty years ago in a book by Edward Said) that fed their Eurocentric concepts of Arabness, discovered in the Arab Spring protest art a vibrant and exciting new way to harness the rage of the "outsiders" into a profit- and control-centered "creative-curatorial-corporate context" in Author Kraidy's memorable words.

What you can expect, then, is a fascinating and thorough delve into a new, or newly technologically expanded, level of insurgency. Artists have never not responded to politics and the world's injustice...Hogarth, anyone?...but the avenues and the reach of their creative insurgency are alarming to the tyrants and heartening to all the resisters and rebels the modern world's manifold oppressions have spawned.

Introducing the last section of the book, Requiem for a Revolution?, Author Kraidy reminds us of some facts as we contemplate the apparent dimming down of revolutionary action around the world:
A more dangerous threat looms over the Arab uprisings: death, at every turn, awaits the body. "The Specter of Death" hovers menacingly above the rebels...If creative insurgency is an artful explansion of the human body in a public space that foments a new revolutionary identity, then the dark shadow of fatality—through guns, bombs, fire, chemicals, starvation, disease, exposure, torture, beheading—is a threat to creative insurgency. Handheld drollery that once enjoined Mubarak, Leave, My Arms Hurt"(from brandishing revolutionary banners), looks positively rosy when set against pictures of emaciated corpses, bloody limbs torn asunder, or the numbers, those stupefying, ballooning numbers, of bodies slaughtered, diseased, displaced.
And the Kurds continue to contribute their mite, all thanks to the 45th President of the United States of America.

Monday, November 4, 2019

THE LINES, a family's devastation in malaise-era US by a master of voices


University of Iowa Press
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Set in the summer of 1979, when America was running out of gas, The Lines tells the story of a family of four—the mother, the father, the girl, and the boy—in the first months of a marital separation. Through alternating perspectives, we follow the family as they explore new territory, new living arrangements, and new complications. The mother returns to school. The father moves into an apartment. The girl squares off with her mother, while the boy struggles to make sense of the world. The Lines explores the way we are all tied to one another, and how all experience offers the possibility of love and connection as much as loss and change.


My Review
: I was a teenager during the 1970s, already a survivor of a "broken family," though I suspect my own family was less broken than unformed...rather like the asteroid belt, widely dispersed bodies intersecting with silent violence when they bother to interact at all. Hence my interest in Author Varallo's first novel (after several story collections, including 2005's kid-themed This Day In History which I read in the Aughties and LOVED).

What strikes me first is how subtle Varallo is in making his points. "The mother," "the father" (much less in evidence beginning to end...I suppose that was inevitable), "the girl," "the boy," are all people with names though not in relation to each other. I have sister is the mental name of each, after all I know who I'm thinking/talking about...and thus the message is sent. Author Varallo is narrating the novel from the inside, like any omniscient third person narrator...oh wait, he's not using we're limited in our viewpoint but intimate with the thoughts and the only people who have names are outsiders and so the narrator is The Family?

Did I parse that correctly?

And, most importantly, does it matter...after all, I wasn't wondering about or even aware of needing to wonder about that until I started writing this review. I like it when I'm aware of a writer's writerly craft in hindsight. It is all too often the case in what I am told we should call "literary fiction" (isn't all fiction of necessity literary? even the televised, broadcast, projected kind? or am I too "big-tent" in my application of its definition?) that the overriding impression I, and many other readers, take away is, "how very hard it must have been to perform that feat." I love the hell out of Ducks, Newburyport and rated it almost five stars, but it's a very literary book, one that's got a huge amount of craft in its composition and good goddesses how much sweat and graft in the editing, and it shows.

I'm not against working for my pleasure; I'm against not including more work of the pleasurable reading sort in the category "literary." This novel is a pleasure read; it was a pleasure to read; the story was deeply relatable; and it didn't push its complexities of construction and creation at the reader. That's a good enough reason to read it right there, assuming broken-family fiction is one's thing. Sales figures suggest that it's a lot of peoples' come get you some.

I was deeply saddened by the father's ineffectual solipsism. He wasn't able to reach out from his gravity well of depression to connect with anyone, certainly not the mother in her angular, cutting unkindness. The girl, a highly competent person in the mother's mold, wasn't particularly ready for her role as leader to fall on her so soon; the boy, well, what a mass of inabilities he was, and isn't that depressingly familiar. Marcus, the bullying stepbrother brought into the family by the mother's decision to be Cliff's woman, is my worst nightmare of a human being. He decides to "teach" the boy how to be a man. It goes, unsurprisingly, horribly wrong and ends up as a major adolescent pissing match. As the nightmare of the blending family unfolds, there is a moment on pages 206–206 where the mother crystallizes the problems she's faced all her life in one paragraph:
And what is the mother to make of this scene, her son and Marcus locked into some kind of adolescent combat, while her husband's old coin bank, that banal and detestable thing, inexplicably smolders on a grill that had, as far as she can recall, only held burgers and hot dogs? Smoke, thick and unnatural, rises from the grill's lid. The air feels heavy with lighter fluid. If ruin has a scent, this back yard reeks of it. See the smoke drifting into the neighbor's yard, as real and substantial as the boy's tears, which he wipes now, his breath heaving in his chest. This family has seen enough tears to last them for a good long while, but each day seems to show up with a fresh supply, unaware of surplus. Human misery, there's never a shortage of it. Surely the neighbors will detect its odor, if they haven't already gotten too heavy a whiff this summer. This house where so much has gone up in smoke.

The mother puts her hand on the boy's shoulder, says, "Where's your sister?"

Uplifting it isn't, but rewarding it is. The world as seen through eyes much like my own. A pleasure not to be dismissed or belittled, that.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

THE COMEDIAN, a fully explanatory title for a theater novel set in Ancient Rome


University of Calgary Press
$5.45 trade paper at Amazon or $24.99 via the publisher, $5.18 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: (from Goodreads) Titus Maccius Plautus' career is on the decline. Once renowned for bringing Greek comedies to the Roman world, now he struggles to stage a single play. Unlucky with money and unlucky in love, Plautus faces the world with wry dignity. This could be the performance that brings back fame and fortune, or the one that ends it all.

Engaging, thoughtful, and funny, The Comedian dives into the rough and tumble world of arts in its infancy. Clem Martini draws on his talent and experience to bring to life the signs and sounds of a world where playwrights suffered and succeeded--but mostly suffered.

(from the book's webpage) In the Roman Republic, comedy is a serious business. Nobody knows this better than Titus Maccius Plautus, the principal comic playwright of his time. Licking his wounds after a series of artistic flops and financial disasters, Plautus returns from his refuge in the country to Rome, desperate to produce a new play.

With limited financial backing provided by tough and striking bar owner Casina, Plautus recruits a company of actors from the amateurs and cast-offs he can afford. Led by a disreputable drunk who just happens to have a pedigree with one of the most respected traveling Greek acting guilds, the motley company unites an eccentric cast of characters on and off the stage. From Orestes, Plautus’ dour, thrifty director to the eager but untrained neophyte, Fronto, to the debt-plagued Plautus himself, each has a role to play, and each is not quite what they seem.

Can this company of misfits come together in time – and remain together long enough – to find success on the stage? With his creditors closing in, can Plautus stay one step ahead, or will he be finished, once and for all? Redolent with the sights and scents of the ancient world, this novel is a rowdy, boisterous ride through the realm of theater in its infancy.


My Review
: I salute you, Clem Martini, for taking a lifetime's interest in theater, its history and its incredible impact on each of us, and turning it into yet more (thirty plays authored and/or produced, standard texts on theatrical history authored, a graphic memoir with his older brother as artist) than you could reasonably be expected to. Plautus would approve: humor, tension, a spicing of sex, and an ending to break a smile on the reader's face.
"I admit," {the elderly actor} says, "I got a little lost—"

"A little??"

"—for a moment," he allows, "for a few moments, but we recovered—"

"Recovered?" Orestes continues, his lips hitting each consonant. "Is that what you call it? Recovered? You," he says poking the old actor in the chest, "are an ancient, derelict billy goat, burping, farting, baaing, and in general eating up the scenery. If you were more intent upon your actions, your actions as we have rehearsed them, rather than upon preening for the audience, you wouldn't forget your lines. And by all that's holy, if you can't remember the lines, then at least improvise something clever. By Jupiter Maximus and all his punishing power, that stammering and umming and awing was pitiful."
If you've ever been in a play, you'll recognize every single beat of that peroration; if you haven't, you'll recognize that the author has and does. Bonus points to Author Martini for getting a good likeness of Plautus in his dialogue, as well.

Reflecting on the self-evident to writers impossibility of making others laugh, of conveying subtleties of meaning across language and time barriers, Martini's Plautus wryly says:
It's irksome how essentially untranslatable humour can prove. Lines that cause great hilarity in Greek lie down like sheep with colic, to sicken and die, in Latin.
So beautifully done...anyone who's tried to write, or translate, or perform humor gets it instantly; Plautus (and of necessity Martini) belongs to our fraternity; the bucolic ancestry of the Roman playwright is reinforced in such a way as to remind the reader of the temporal displacement of the story from us as well. After all, not a lot of twenty-first century people pull out sheep-death similes in pursuit of a point.

It isn't perfect. At times the impression is of reading a novelized play, with action taking place offstage or being relegated to "the chorus" to narrate:
Orestes urges me to keep writing, stay healthy, and abstain from garum. With that he claps me on the back, drains his cup, stands, and bids us both good night. Naevius nods as my Greek friend slips past him. I reflect as he leaves that there's always been a certain reserve between those two that I honestly don't understand. I know Orestes respects Naevius as a poet, and Naevius has praised Orestes's musical abilities to me many times. Still it's undeniable, there's tension when they sit together.
All of that reads as though it's stage directions and actor asides. It isn't bad, it isn't flawed in some way, but it distances the reader by removing us from the immediacy of experiencing the story with the characters (dialogue plus some of that narration) into straight narration of the story to us. Further distancing, at least for some very tradition-minded readers of my acquaintance, comes from Author Martini's use of non-standard dialogue tags:
"I think so," I admit.

He nods a moment, then takes another drink. "And you're satisfied with that?" he asks.

"What?" I reply.
This is one example among many where I found myself wishing that he'd simply left off these tags entirely. However, the times when they're useful, what's wrong with "said" and, when something's a question, simply allowing this dingus: "?" to alert the attentive reader that an interrogative tone is to be used in their sub-vocal verbalization? (See what I did there?) (Oops, did it again!)

However, that very quality of stageiness is used to marvelous effect when Plautus has the creative soul's inevitable Dark Night of Self-Doubt:
Let all the gods strip me naked and flail me with a leather lash if I ever pick up a wax tablet to write again, let the god Dionysus plunge me deep in a vat of wine and hold me under if I ever pick up a stylus again, I am done, I am done, by all the gods who ever pulled their togas aside to piss on humans, I am done with this.
Success or failure, triumph or humiliation, every single writer who has ever lived will recognize this moment. You're released from the divine madness of creation; the human side of you has no bloody clue what to do now, or next; and yet the chasm of Reality yawns at your feet and you're suddenly subject to gravity again. That. Rots. On. Ice.

The effect of the whole is, I think I've shown, engrossing and entertaining. Definitely recommended for classic-aged audiences and cautiously so for those of middle years. It's strong meat indeed Author Martini serves us, a taste of what we're in for, and that's probably not going to go down well with younger audiences (it made my Young Gentleman Caller cry):
The body is simply a leather mask that the spirit slips on when we are born. This is never so evident as when a person passes away, and you observe the shell stripped of its animating inner force.