Wednesday, June 30, 2021

NONBINARY, being a memoir via call-to-arms of Genesis P-Orridge...famous if you know who they are


Abrams Press
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: ?? five, three, sixteen? how does one rate this sort of story?


The Publisher Says: A revealing and beautifully open memoir from pioneering industrial music artist, visual artist, and transgender icon Genesis P-Orridge

In this groundbreaking book spanning decades of artistic risk-taking, the inventor of “industrial music,” founder of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, and world-renowned fine artist with COUM Transmissions Genesis P-Orridge (1950–2020) takes us on a journey searching for identity and their true self. It is the story of a life of creation and destruction, where Genesis P-Orridge reveals their unwillingness to be stuck—stuck in one place, in one genre, or in one gender. Nonbinary is Genesis’s final work and is shared with hopes of being an inspiration to the newest generation of trailblazers and nonconformists.

Nonbinary is the intimate story of Genesis’s life, weaving the narrative of their history in COUM Transmissions, Throbbing Gristle, and Psychic TV. It also covers growing up in World War II’s fallout in Britain, contributing to the explosion of new music and radical art in the 1960s, and destroying visual and artistic norms throughout their entire life.

In addition to being a captivating memoir of a singular artist and musician, Nonbinary is also an inside look at one of our most remarkable cultural lives that will be an inspiration to fans of industrial music, performance art, the occult, and a life in the arts.


My Review
: There are no words for Genesis P-Orridge. Trans, genderqueer, non-binary; artist, musician, creator...or Creator. Not one of them can hope to do more than capture a slice of this astonishing being's self.

William S. Burroughs met them when they were twenty...he immediately posed them a life-long quest in a question:
"How do we short-circuit control?"

When William S. Burroughs asks you to solve a problem the first day you meet him, all of 20 to his rising-60, you have to know you are Someone. And Someone Genesis was, and became, and remained until their death from leukemia at seventy. Central to their identity was re-making a world in their irreplaceable self-image. From childhood, they found no pleasure in eating:
This struggle with food and eating has never ended. Even now, if I could absorb enough nourishment and vitamins by simply swallowing one pill with some water, I'd be thrilled. I have never been able to muster even the slightest interest in tastes, flavours, textures, or combinations of food. It has always struck me as a demeaning and primitive requirement of my body. A necessity that I totally resent.

It seems to me that, from a parenting perspective, this person would've been a bloody nightmare. And that was then, at the time and in a place where invasions of home life were significantly fewer and milder than they are now. Raising Genesis if born in 2000? Ye gawds, the spirit shies from such a travail.

Though Genesis born now would've found their QUILTBAGgery much less troublesome. Their life in a British "public school" (that's "expensive private school for the Ruling Class" to us in the US, think Choate or Boston Latin School) was a litany of torture and torment, unsurprisingly. These breeding grounds for Tory Government flunkies (Skull and Bones, to us in the US, breeding CIA and IMF fascists) were never going to be a congenial environment for a complete wanker like Genesis.

I think the problems of being Other, truly and genuinely Other, are never more clear than when Genesis tells (in clear and well-written English, when one expects something that sounds like their lyrics from Throbbing Gristle...translations from a future language via Akkadian texts) of their journey to the truly bizarre fame they found in the 1970s and 1980s. It reads a bit like a daVinci notebook does when one doesn't know that the writing's meant to be read in a mirror. The concepts are all there...the sheer panicky "what is happening to me" sense of it all, suavely undersold, makes the story into a truly unsettling read.

I think, in fact, that there is no better way to sum up Genesis P-Orridge's life's affect and effect than that: a lifelong sense of "what is happening to me," from birth to death; a need to surf on the curls of waves that one knows with great certainty are killers ready to end one's thin thread of a life.

Genesis discusses the sense they have always had of a non-linear self. An early description of their memories as glittering shards without connection or organizing principle explains everything, I think. How else but in those terms could a person sing so eerily about the awfulness...rape, cannibalism...that they did? When nothing connects to anything else, when experience and memory are frag-bombs of disorganized imagery, it is impossible to see the world as anything but sensory shrapnel as ready to rend and pierce as to please.

Don't pick this up as a celebrity bio; don't think the artsy-fartsy bits are going to be posh and the livin' be easy. No indeed. There's total hand-to-mouthery from beginning to end. The struggle that is their life could, in retrospect, never have been otherwise if they were to come out of it themself. For example, the name "Genesis P-Orridge" came out of their deep need to say "FUCK YOU" to bureaucrats at the dole office. And their mother was more upset about that than their decision to leave uni! So, of course, it was made legal and remained the cornerstone of their identity for their next fifty years.

I said before: Parenting this person *had* to be a seriously difficult and stressful experience.

I do not know if this reading experience will be for everyone; like Genesis, the audience is really down to self-selection. Their co-author on this extraordinary journey of a read said it best, I think:
These encounters were intimate and intense. Challenging, but not in the way that engaging with a strong personality like {Timothy} Leary challenged one's ego and assumptions with the power of his own. It was more a feeling of being taken in and invaded at the same time, where the boundary of my own individuality was immediately suspect. It was like making love or, better, being possessed. It was a nondual way of relating to people.

Does this give you the heebie-jeebies? Horseman, pass by. Does it give you a frisson? Buy, read, experience a corner of the strange, glorious, unique Other that was Genesis P-Orridge.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

WONDER BREAD AND ECSTASY, an unintentionally anti-capitalist screed against the vacuity of consumerism

WONDER BREAD AND ECSTASY: The Life and Death of Joey Stefano

Out of print (non-affiliate Amazon link)
Various prices from different vendors

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Drugs, sex, and unbridled ambition: These were the main ingredient in the lethal cocktail that killed gay porn's brightest star, Joey Stefano. As pornography's most marketable gay face and body, he was filmed having sex in more than 35 hard-core videos, danced an unforgettable striptease in clubs across America and Europe, and hustled his way through thousands of dollars paid to him by clients around the globe. But none of this filled the void inside Nicholas Iacona, a.k.a. Joey Stefano. From his childhood in the country's heartland to his tragic rise and fall in Los Angeles's dark and dangerous world of gay porn, Wonder Bread and Ecstasy paints a grim portrait of American life gone berserk.

My Review: Reading that blurb twenty-five years on, the first thought that comes to mind is, "Oh, Sasha...stop being such a drama queen." Sasha Alyson's eponymous publishing house brought this book out two years after Joey Stefano's death from an (almost untreated, in a scandalous twist I hadn't known when I first heard of the event) overdose of party drugs. It also marks Charles Isherwood's only book publication to date. (You've probably been scratching your head about Charles Isherwood, thinking permaybehaps of Christopher, but Charles if the theater critic who got canned a few years back. One sees in the Vulture piece linked that the now-reviled Scott Rudin's name appears prominently in the mishegas; much could be explained if that involvement was, well, one of Rudin's usuals.)

Anyway. Back to Joey Stefano...he was a standard-issue kid from a typical, unexceptional background; no one would've thought it was unusual at the time, nor would anyone have seen in a young boy's truculence and troublesome personality a clear danger sign of childhood sexual abuse. Isherwood, as he had no access to the deceased, doesn't say directly that there was something of incest actually happening; it doesn't take any intense reading between the lines, though, to see it's among the likely explanations for the gay only-male-child's unfillable void of love. What the surviving family denies is, in my observation of families with abusive parents of any stripe, typical circling the wagons behavior. What I think happened is that there was abusive behavior in his past...too many things point to it. What we can't know is the form that abuse took.

What a ride of a life the beautiful creature led, though, messed up from a middling sort of childhood which led to a complete absence of ordinary career paths after his father died and he, grieving, left high school. With his sisters and mother clearly unable to provide what he needed in terms of support and guidance, he did what those pretty enough to do so have always done: He sold his body for his daily bread.

Nothing unusual there...but the time this was happening, 1983, was the absolute nadir of the AIDS epidemic. A teen hustler on the make after older men in a time before the concept of "safe sex" had even been articulated still less codified? Guaranteed he's going to do risky things. And thse risky things were exactly what he wanted to do anyway, the guy was a size queen and a truly complete bottom. Look at any one of the many scenes he filmed: This was a man who loved his job. He loved the sex. He loved the cameras. He loved the attention. And, as most porn figures of the era used to their advantage, the VCR revolution that came along exactly as the AIDS epidemic hit meant that the films they made were a form of advertising their wares the same way the old club scene was slowly moving away from.

Here came the most beautiful young man, the least debauched looking angelface, to do the most titillatingly extreme things! On film! You could watch it six, eight, ten times in a row and not once would it fail to deliver! Wealthy men saw; they wanted; they paid and he came. And there was the beautiful body they craved. On screen or off, there was a glory of nature and it was yours for the right (steep) price.

So Joey Stefano got used to being used and used to using people, places, and things. He was, with his eager cooperation, a packaged product...and he had a shelf life.

The glory years were glorious indeed if you're destined by background to mediocrity and by your actions to poverty. The gift of beauty needs to be harvested quickly, and he (showing what I think is a strong shrewd streak) took every chance that hove into view and made it an opportunity. I loved that about him as I read the book. I could, with the distance of time from his death, see which way the parade was headed, and still think "that's exactly what a businessperson with a perishable asset *should* do."

Time, however, has no respect for the asset. Overexposure...changing industry tastes...Joey was the first porn star bottom, the first not to be called a "stunt butt." Inevitably for a business built on pandering to the craving for novelty, he lost some luster, and lost his sense of purpose.

He didn't lose his need to fill his devouring emotional vacancy with drugs. Nothing else could work. No one else could be enough to keep the need to numb the pain of losing something you never even felt you deserved. Numbing the loss of his father, the unlikely chance that he could've built some kind of trust and love between them. That was taken away in 1983; that was just the ignition point, not even the start of the trouble, the gay only son of a bog-standard father...this wasn't going to end well no matter what. And it didn't.

Dead at 26. Self-inflicted harm. And all because he bought the line of bullshit about Stuff, getting and having, being a solution instead of a problem...drugs, money, sex, it's all part of the "more more more is better better better" mentality that costs so many people so very dearly. Just not usually, unlike unlucky Joey Stefano, their continued life.

Monday, June 28, 2021

I, PIERRE SEEL, DEPORTED HOMOSEXUAL: A Memoir of Nazi Terror...more important now than ever

(tr. Joachim Neugroschel)
Basic Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: At the age of seventeen, in the arms of a thief, Pierre Seel felt his watch sliding off his wrist. So begins the astonishing chain of events that led to the Schirmeck-Vorbruch concentration camp, where Seel suffered unspeakable horrors for the sole "crime" of being a homosexual.

The story of survival in the camps has been told many times, but Seel's is one of the only firsthand accounts of the Nazi roundup and deportation of homosexuals. For nearly forty years he kept his experiences—including torture, humiliation, and witnessing the vicious murder of his lover at the hands of the Nazis—a secret in order to cover up his homosexuality.

He found a wife through a personal ad, married, and raised three children. "The Liberation", he writes, "was for others". Finally, haunted by his experiences and by the silence of others, he decided to bear witness to an aspect of the Holocaust rarely seen. As he noted, "If I do not speak, I will become the accomplice of my torturers". The result is a terrifying and heartbreaking memoir, extraordinary for its frankness and courage.

My Review: First, read this:
I had to bear witness in order to protect the future, bear witness in order to overcome the amnesia of my contemporaries.
If I do not speak, I will become the accomplice of my torturers.

Horrible what Hate does to people, makes them bestial and vicious and base. Seel saw all of that, from his entry into the list of homosexuals kept by police to his arrest and deportation. Gay people in concentration camps were not accepted and cared for as were other prisoners, they were victimized by the others as well as the guards. Of course French society at that time was no more accepting of queers than it has ever been...even though the Vichy government wasn't legally re-criminalizing sodomy between consenting adults, it felt free to persecute its QUILTBAG citizens without even that figleaf.

What is it that you hate so much, straight people? Christian, Jewish, Muslim people? What in your souls says "I hate" so loudly that even your big bully imaginary friend hates too?
He had been one of the officials who kept the illegal list of homosexuals in that region with the same good conscience as when he ticketed store owners for neglecting dog turds on their sidewalks.

Imagine this...the *entire*reason* Pierre had to endure the horrors he was forced to undergo was one simple act of responsible citizeship, of simple human need: He lost a watch to a trick (who obviously didn't trade names with him!) and reported it to the police station. He was young and naïve, answered the police's questions honestly, and was ever after branded a undesirable. Well, anyway, after an amazing wartime changeup and a forced conversion to straightness in the 1950s, Seel finally came to peace with himself in 1981 and, in 1994, finally wrote down the painful facts of his past. Inspired by this review getting blogged, I decided that I'd like to know some more about Seel's post-memoir life. I was appalled to learn that the Mayor of Strasbourg, from whence he was deported, actually refused to shake his hand because of his effrontery in telling his own story. That same person later went on to national office under a Socialist much for Leftists having good credentials with QUILTBAG folks.

Better than that revolting little contretemps, however, was the throw-away line, "He spent the last 12 years or so with his long-term partner, Eric Féliu, with whom he bred dogs in Toulouse, which helped him to overcome the fear of dogs he had developed after Jo's death," referring to his lover torn apart by guard dogs on the Russian Front in 1943. I myownself would recommend reading the Wikipedia entry after the book...I'd especially like to see the book have an Afterword or Epilogue in place of the somewhat bloviating Introduction it has now. Eric Féliu is someone I'd like to know a whole lot more about. (The Endnotes aren't very well organized, either, and Basic Books is one of the acknowledged leaders in non-fiction publishing. It's a shame, really.)

It's not easy to read, but I wish I could make every religious person and every anti-gay bigot read it. I can't, so there's no point in going on about it. If something in you thinks that it's okay to say "sure, fine, be that way but ewww don't talk about it" then you're the reason books like this are necessary.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

THOSE SEVEN REFERENCES, an attempt to subvert xian homophobia from within

THOSE SEVEN REFERENCES: A Study of Homosexuality in the Bible and Its Impact on the Queer Community of Faith

Morehouse Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: I honestly have no idea how to approach assigning a rating to this book

The Publisher Says: A thoughtful analysis of the faulty rationale behind Christian anti-gay bias.

There have been enormous strides toward equality for the queer community in recent years. There have also been regressive local legislative actions seeking to limit those national steps toward equality. Many of those who have led these regressive efforts are individuals steeped in purposeful ignorance, bias, tribalism, and a radicalization of faithful beliefs, misleading their congregations and influencing legislators.

Personhood, the intense value of our individuality, cannot be made less by these few passages of scripture: God’s love for our uniqueness is not compromised by oft misinterpreted verses. Having knowledge and words to counter baseless accusations can disarm those who would use these passages as weapons of exclusion and judgement, and can empower the queer community to live confidently in God’s love.

My Review: Episcopalian priest Dwyer goes after the uses of seven references to male (and only male) homosexual behaviors present in their entire bloody Bible, which the author contends have been wrongly used as "weapons of violence"; he wrote this work to "{allow} God's voice to be heard in these passages in ways that have been silenced for many generations."

Biblical exegisis would seem an odd choice for a topic of my reading, given my loud and public anti-xianity. I do believe in reading what the enemy writes, though, to be certain I can refute it, condemn it, deny it, or invalidate it somehow. Having read this book, I can honestly say, "Who the hell cares?!?" Nothing in here will dent the armor of foolishness that insists the sprawling, self-contradictory mass of folktales we call "the Bible" is the Inerrant Word of God. Demonstrably untrue, that; no amount of logic, of history, of common sense for Pete's sake, will ever convince the True Believer that the Bible simply cannot be what they claim it is.

So why argue? Why pussyfoot through the "written in a very different time about very different people" stuff? Why point out that the Pentateuch/Torah is an exercise in willful cultural creation, a definition of group identity formed in *direct*opposition*to* the prevailing culture of the place the Israelites were about to invade and conquer (because "God gave it to them" God sanctions theft of the property of others, so long as it's not One Of Ours? How edifying). And it pays to note the maleness of all this: only men are prohibited from from same-sex activity because it doesn't lead to procreation. Yet no one notices the corollary to this: Sex with women unable to have children due to age or inability is therefore also prohibited; and women having sex with each other, while unaddressed, must also be prohibited if sex is solely for the purpose of procreation. All those straight Christian consumers of porn featuring girl-on-girl activity take note! (Not like they don't already come in for condemnation under the adultery sections of the law.)

Clearly the subject angers me. It is one of many, many, many points of contempt I have for this Bible. The document, considered as a moral compass, is sick-making (pimping one's daughters out = ok; allowing one's concubine to be *RAPED TO DEATH* = ok; loving sex with someone of one's own gender = abomination...?). As a work of folk history, it's fascinating. As a piece of poetry, it's frequently beautiful (though I confess I think the King James Version is superior to the modern ones here). But a god who takes bets on how much a man can endure in the way of torture, just for kicks? A god who demands a man sacrifice his son, as in KILL HIM, and only as the nutball father is about to do it, countermands the order? Who then says "bye now, I'm off" and vanishes from the sphere of men, and is *still* worshipped as being present?

Really. How in the world can this crap be made to make sense to a person of average intelligence? And yet, somehow, it is. I remain completely bewildered by this.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

MY WINNING PICKS FOR THE 2021 LOCUS AWARD...four of the eight I'd backed got the nod!

Network Effect has won Best Science Fiction Novel at the 2021 Locus Awards!

Ring Shout has won Best Novella at the 2021 Locus Awards!

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories has won Best Collection at the 2021 Locus Awards!

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking has won Best Young Adult Novel at the 2021 Locus Awards!

These were the ones I reviewed and had in my mind as the best choices in their categories. I am delighted for the winners in their richly deserved success! Incidentally, four of eight...50%!...of my own personal choices winning their categories is the best I've done ever in my long history of handicapping this contest. The entire list of winners can be found here.

PHILIP SPARROW TELLS ALL, a long-forgotten side of a queer elder statesman's career

PHILIP SPARROW TELLS ALL: Lost Essays by Samuel Steward, Writer, Professor, Tattoo Artist

Foreword by Justin Spring, author of SECRET HISTORIAN: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade
University of Chicago Press
$20.00 ebook or trade paper editions, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Samuel Steward (1909–93) was an English professor, a tattoo artist for the Hells Angels, a sexual adventurer who shared the considerable scope of his experiences with Alfred Kinsey, and a prolific writer whose publications ranged from scholarly articles to gay erotica (the latter appearing under the pen name Phil Andros). Perhaps his oddest authorial role was as a monthly contributor between 1944 and 1949 to the Illinois Dental Journal, an obscure trade publication for dentists, where writing as Philip Sparrow he produced a series of charming, richly allusive, and often quirky essays on a wildly eclectic assortment of topics.

In Philip Sparrow Tells All, Jeremy Mulderig has collected thirty of these engaging but forgotten columns, prefacing them with revealing introductions that relate the essays to people and events in Steward’s life and to the intellectual and cultural contexts in which he wrote during the 1940s. In these essays we encounter such famous friends of Steward as Gertrude Stein, André Gide, and Thornton Wilder. We hear of his stint as a holiday sales clerk at Marshall Field’s (where he met and seduced fellow employee Rock Hudson), of his roles as an opera and ballet extra in hilariously shoddy costumes, of his hoarding tendencies, his disappointment with the drabness of men’s fashions, and his dread of turning forty. We go along with him to a bodybuilding competition and a pet cemetery, and together we wander the boulevards of Paris and the alleys of Algiers. Throughout, Mulderig’s entertaining annotations explain the essays’ wide-ranging allusions and also highlight their gay subtext, which constituted a kind of private game that Steward played with his mostly oblivious audience of Midwestern dentists.

The first collection of any of Samuel Steward’s writings to be republished since his death in 1993, Philip Sparrow Tells All makes these lost essays available to a broad readership that Steward imagined but never actually enjoyed when he wrote them. In doing so, it takes a major step toward documenting his important place in twentieth-century gay literature and history.


My Review
: First, read this:
There is a quality to the City of the Big Shoulders that grows on a person, like the taste of a martini, like learning to like pineapple and cottage cheese. There are so many things against it that have to be forgotten. When we first arrived we hated it—the dirty papers flying loosely on the streets, the sprawling quality it had, the "maryann" backs of the apartment houses that you see from the elevated tracks as the train groans and screeches on its way to the Loop. We loathed the dirty clothes hanging on the little wooden back porches, we suffered over the unbelievable squalor and filth of the south-side tenements, the naked babies playing in the mud of the backyards—and the incredible hypocrisy of the bright shops on Michigan Boulevard, and the white lights on the whiter Wrigley Tower.
    from "On Chicago"

Now, go read his Wikipedia page to get a sense of why this basic little twink was a Very, Very Big Deal; it explains a lot when you know he was a literary writer of merit while young, an esteemed literary scholar during middle age, and a pornographer of godlike renown in his later years. Throughout his life he was the proverbial "good time had by all," racking up over eight hundred (800!) sex partners in a Satyr-esque lifetime of over four thousand five hundred (4,500!!) sexual encounters.

He even impressed Alfred Kinsey. (You know, the one Liam Neeson played in that movie, the one you're referencing when you say someone's a "Kinsey 6" or whatever.) His journals and other related materials went to the Kinsey Institute...I'm sure they're still popping students' eyes.

Knowing what we know now of Steward's life and lifestyle, one can't but help wondering rather bemusèdly what the hell the Illinois Dentistry Journal was thinking when they asked Professor Steward to write a column for them. Reading these pieces with modern eyes, it's damned incredible what he was able to get away with saying. But in 1944, when he began this work, he was an outwardly respectable far social media has dragged (!) us into the private lives of all the people we know! A simple Googling, had it existed in 1944, would've made the staid, stolid dentists of Illinois aware that they wouldn't want Steward's hands anywhere near their instruments.

So to speak.

Probably the most fun thing about reading this collection, for me as a gay kid who loved Phil Andros's first-person hustling tales, is the astonishing freedom to camp it up that came from invisibility! There is no single-edged sword, is there. It delighted me to spend time with Uncle Philip (Auntie Philip?) as we went behind the scenes at the Opera...a thing one should really never do with the performing arts, go look behind the curtain, it utterly ruins the illusions and one can not ever recover them.
I showed up at seven, trembling a little. I heard my name called, and within moments was being whisked up the elevator to the fifth floor...where the men dressed. ... The costume master handed me a mustard-colored costume: a pair of breeches, a short bolero jacket, a string of red cheesecloth for a necktie, and a salmon-colored cummerbund to wrap around my manly form. ... Within a short while I discovered that the breeches were size 46, which is a little large for my svelte thirty-inch waist. I was soon madly fumbling at my rear, trying to pull in the straps and pin myself together. ... At last a kind old gentleman saw my troubles. "Come here," he said. He applied two safety pins, took an extra-long cummerbund, and twirled me into it. Then he took two three-inch folds in my rear, and warned me not to turn my backside to the audience. And we went down to the stage, where a little man rubbed our cheeks briefly with bright rouge, and with a black eyebrow pencil gave us romantic sideburns, and let us go.
    from "On Operas and Operating"

It's like being backstage again...the bit about the cummerbund, for the uninitiated, is precisely accurate. One cannot put on a real cummerbund solo. One needs a deft companion to hold the long cloth at precise and varying angles while one (gracelessly, in my case) twirls and the cummer does its bunding of your trousers. Excellent practice for diapering a toddler, I note for those who might benefit from this knowledge.

One of my mother's cultural touchstones, and thus mine by osmosis, was the inimitable food writer M.F.K. Fisher. She introduced the concept of Dining to many an aspiring flyover-country lassie like Mama. If you have never encountered her lapidary prose, and her conoisseur's eye for what makes a meal A Feast, please do not read the rest of this review until you've procured and at least sampled The Measure of Her Powers or The Art of Eating, which last title is free to read for Amazon Prime members! Oh, don't just take my word for it; read Philip Sparrow's "On How to Cook a Wolf" to get the arch, exquisite Friend-of-Dorothy look at the medieval table's, ermmm, pleasures. There is a recipe to cook a wolf! Fisher quotes it, so does Auntie; and then, in the dropping-of-hairpins to end them all, says this:
For my part, I cannot rest until I find a wolf to try it. Unfortunately, there is in these parts a scarcity of the four-legged kind, so I have a notion to call up "Esquire Escorts" [Bonded Male and Female Escorts for All Occasions] and ask them to send me out an unbonded one, a tall, husky, grey-eyed blond of the two-legged variety. Then, clutching my trusty cudgel, I'll lay him flat as he enters the door, and set to work.
    from "On How to Cook a Wolf"

Whoa, Nelly! (or nelly, I suppose) That's pretty darned Out for that day and time...and his audience wouldn't've known that a "wolf" in the time's gay argot was a studly muffin who did boys on the side, like the current term "trade" covers. Sam Steward was a twink, thin and blond and very much a bottom in today's parlance. He was also a genuine masochist, he liked the leathers and the games of dominance and submission too...but mostly, in his own time, he was invisible as a gay man because there wasn't a large group of people aware of such beings existing among them...and it shows, as we say now.

What I think you might wonder, you poor benighted straight person who happened across my blog, is how the hell you're supposed to be in on the joke when I might as well be speaking Croatian to you right now. Editor Mulderig to the rescue! Everything I've just told you is on the page with the article I'm quoting. It's not called out in a's just printed at the bottom of the page and references to the place in the text are in italics to call your attention, eg:
a wolf to try it. In the urban parlance of the early twentieth century, ...

This is, after all, an academic press's book; one must expect the resident academicians have worked their magic on the obscure points in the text. It's hugely helpful; it's unobtrusive; and in the end it added immeasurably to my pleasure in the read.

That said, the pleasure was one I felt inclined to prolong. One, sometimes two, pieces back-to-back; selected on whim, or mood, not in chronological order; thus it took about four times as long to read the whole text as it would have had it been a novel or other form of narrative. The articles, their subjects, the gestalt of the pieces being written for dentists who almost certainly were innocent of any knowledge of what Auntie Philip was really saying, the biographical detail that the author had serious hotness for the editor he was working for; all of it makes this 256-page slenderness of a treat so much more delicious than most summer reads you can buy.

Just spread the pleasure out over more time and savor the spicy scent of cakes long since baked and tea long since served.

Friday, June 25, 2021

THREE MEMOIRS OF GAY HUSTLING, all with happy endings...not THAT kind


Out of print (non-affiliate Amazon link)
Various prices from different vendors

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Rick Whitaker divulges the complex reasons that drove him to prostitution and reflects on the cost of a life of half-truths and emotional lies. With an unsentimental eye, Whitaker chronicles his descent and eventual resolution.

My Review: That's a pretty sparse description for a pretty intense book. It's a short thing, pared down to its essential points, and purged of prurient detail. (Darn it.)

Whitaker was the editorial assistant to publishing legend Gordon Lish. You know, Raymond Carver? Richard Ford? The one who edited, or quite possibly more than edited, their best stuff. He was, apparently, absorbing a lot from Lish (not a double entendre that I know of) because he wastes no words here describing his descent from broke publishing minion to crack-addled sex worker AND broke publishing minion.

It's amazingly easy to understand and sympathize with Whitaker. He's not some rotten-souled vile being who expresses himself by Doing Shocking Things. He's a guy who needs a center to his life, needs a sense of belonging and of mattering. I speak from experience here: If one needs those things, NEW YORK IS NOT THE PLACE TO LIVE. I watched it eat people alive, make others miserable, and all because the one thing those folks needed was the one thing the city does not reward. Either arrive already centered, focused, or understand that you are driven by a goal...or the city will have you for breakfast with a side of bacon.

Whitaker sold access to his body for drug money, for the momentary illusion of power, and for the sheer hell of it. He ended up not wanting what he found, and got out, and told his story so all the experience would not go to waste.

I like the book, where lots didn't much. I respect sex workers for the sheer magnitude of their performance capability. I admire their generosity of spirit (how many pretty people do you imagine subcontract their sex lives? Lots of old, lonely, ugly, fat folks do). I've had some very good friends (without benefits, thank you for asking) who did this demanding and difficult job. Whitaker's was a story I've heard with variations for years. It's not something I'd suggest one read for titillation, but any moralists who have accidentally stumbled into reading my reviews (you must feel so lost, poor lambs) should give it a whirl, as should those inclined to judge and find wanting all those billions and billions of people not precisely like themselves. (There is overlap in the categories, but they aren't all the same people.)

Empathy can be learned. Try this and see if you can't find some for a man searching for acceptance.



Citadel Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Here’s the story of Rich Merritt—the good son, teacher’s pet, Southern gentleman, model Christian student at Bob Jones University, Marine officer, and the not-so-anonymous poster boy for a New York Times Magazine article on gays in the military—whose complicated sexual past caused an international scandal when The Advocate “outed” him as “The Marine Who Did Gay Porn,” putting his life in a tailspin.

It’s the compelling, poignant story of how a boy who never listened to pop music, never cursed, and didn’t have his first drink until he was eighteen exploded into a life of drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, prostitution, and pornography. And above all, it’s a triumphant story of self-forgiveness and identity, of a man who refused to allow himself to be defined by the standards of anyone else—gay or straight. Along the way, Rich Merritt writes with humor, compassion, insight and naked truth about:
• What it’s really like growing up behind the “Fortress of Fundamentalism” and how he ultimately came to despise their views
• The harsh realities of military life under the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” Clinton policy
• A real insider’s experience of working in the male porn industry—the good, the bad, and the extremely hot
• Why he chose not to reveal his porn past to the New York Times journalist
• What it felt like to be the most notorious marine in the world and what it took to come through the fire

By turns harrowing and heartbreaking, angry and affirming, Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star is that rarest of memoirs—a fascinating slice of life that reads like the most absorbing fiction, but is all true.

My Review: Gay guys who become porn stars are very interesting to me. Their stories, I suppose, are all very much alike, and very much like the stories that drive women to pornography...low self-esteem, a sense of failure in one's life, a desire to capitalize on physical beauty while it lasts, greed, the usual. But those driving forces aren't unique to these people, they're common to all of us in some degree or another. Why do these folks do this (to me) very scary and risky job?

Start with a damn-near fatal upbringing in the grasp of an Evangelical family; proceed to the Bob Jones-ing of his entire education, all the way from kindergarten (there is no link to the non-University of Bob Jones due to, um, controversies shall we say) to time in seminary; waking up and realizing he can not pray the gay away, subsequent substance abuse, two deliberate decisions to end his life.

This author pilots us through his decisions made...he didn't have sex with anyone until he was twenty-three! and he was sexually repressed to the point that his first sexual encounter predates the first time he ever masturbated!...and accepted; this with a degree of skill and a commendable lack of embarrassment that surprised me. I was expecting a defensive tone to creep in to the reports. He instead simply informs the reader of his choices and seems, while not endorsing them with hindsight, not to disavow the life he lived, either. The sense I get is of a guy I'd enjoy kickin' back with a beer, some nachos, and a bunch of good jazz CDs on shuffle with.

Plus he's really so very pretty to look at.



University of Minnesota Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$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.

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-absorption 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 high-class hetaira-dom in 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 of 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 more carnage behind in his wake. But the fact that no one ever killed him means that he learned enough to at leas 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 I got to know from reading this book too terribly 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, umm, on balance I'd say not unless your Gay BFF approves it for your personal tastes.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

DISASTERAMA!, a funny, poignant memoir of coming (and coming, and coming) of age during a plague

DISASTERAMA!: Adventures in the Queer Underground 1977 to 1997

Three Rooms Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$8.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: DISASTERAMA: Adventures in the Queer Underground 1977 to 1997, is the true story of Alvin Orloff who, as a shy kid from the suburbs of San Francisco, stumbled into the wild eclectic crowd of Crazy Club Kids, Punk Rock Nutters, Goofy Goofballs, Fashion Victims, Disco Dollies, Happy Hustlers, and Dizzy Twinks of post-Stonewall American queer culture of the late 1970s, only to see the “subterranean lavender twilit shadow world of the gay ghetto” ravished by AIDS in the 1980s.

In Disasterama, Orloff recalls the delirious adventures of his youth—from San Francisco to Los Angeles to New York—where insane nights, deep friendships with the creatives of the underground, and thrilling bi-coastal living led to a free-spirited life of art, manic performance, high camp antics, and exotic sexual encounters.

Orloff looks past the politics of AIDS to the people on the ground, friends of his who did not survive AIDS’ wrath—the boys in black leather jackets and cackling queens in tacky frocks—remembering them not as victims, but as people who loved life, loved fun, and who were a part of the insane jigsaw of Orloff’s friends. In Disasterama, Orloff tells their story: the true tale of how a bunch of pathologically flippant kids floundered through a deadly disaster.

My Review: First, read this:
I would become a writer! It made perfect sense: I'd always been socially awkward, pretentious, moody, self-loathing, judgmental, and besotted with the sound of my own voice. What else could I be?
Unlike prostitution or promiscuity, stripping was entirely public. One foot on the state would forever mark me as a disreputable character, the sort respectable people called a sleaze. On the other hand ... I didn't know any respectable people and my workday would be a mere thirty minutes long. And, I had to face it, some quirk of my psychic constitution rendered the strictures of ordinary jobs insufferable to me. Restaurant work felt like a cross between the treadmill at the gym and one of those Japanese game shows on which contestants are abused and humiliated in front of a sadistic audience. Office work was even worse, calling to mind those B movies in which some poor soul—bound and gagged, but eyes wide with terror—is slowly walled up brick-by-brick in the dungeon of some damp, rat-infested Transylvanian castle.

If this isn't raising a chuckle, Author Orloff (I Married An Earthling was an earlier title of his, which I reviewed rather grouchily twenty years ago) might not be the guide to a bygone day that you personally will warm to. I find his work pretty funny.

I'm Author Orloff's age. Despite being born within hailing distance of the place, I spent little time in San Francisco, more in Austin (a surprisingly queer place even then!) and New York, but the world we lived in as young men has utterly vanished. Many of the guys I knew are dead...many aren't...but all of us have empty slots where loved people once stood. But enough long-face!
The plague and the insurgency it fuelled were forging a previously unknown camaraderie and it was fun. Just then, fun was a political issue. For decades the media had painted gay men as a sad victims of loneliness, depression, suicide, insanity, and/or murder. The Gay = Tragic meme receded a bit during the height of '70s hedonism, but was making a strong '80s comeback with the modern twist that our inevitable bad end came from AIDS. The innocent victim gayboys might be sympathetic, but the pity they evoked felt maudlin and slightly toxic. People wanted to end their days in a party, not a puddle of tears.

What a fast-paced and nostalgic look back at a moment when being young was fun! It can't be helped that AIDS took the lives of so many. It feels like the world Orloff describes (and illustrates with candid snapshots and collected ads, posters, and the like...who the hell keeps this ephemera?!) is as distant as World War II. These days, fun seems dead and young people have to think about what we had the luxury of ignoring.

Selfishly, I'm glad I could ignore it. Responsibly, I wish I hadn't had that choice. Take the walking tour of a vanished world with a cis-white queer punk-party boy who grew up way, way too hard. Maybe not too fast, considering he's still whinnying with us.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

SINCE MY LAST CONFESSION, fun and funny account of being a gay Catholic


Arcade Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Scott Pomfret serves as a lector at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston. He also writes gay porn. His boyfriend is a flaming atheist, and his boyfriend's Protestant grandmother counts Catholicism a sin worse than sodomy. From Pentecost to Pride, from the books of the Bible to the articles of The Advocate, Pomfret's wry, hysterically funny memoir maps with matchless humor the full spectrum of the gay Catholic experience.

Listen in as Pomfret learns a thing or two about love and compassion from Father Bear Daddy, a priest with a hot profile, and the Three Hale Marys, and join him as he sets out on a brave quest to convince his arch-nemesis, Cardinal O'Malley, to invite him to serve at a weekly mass.

My Review: A gay Catholic engages with his native church. I am not Irish, as Pomfret is, but am gay (well, reasonably cheerful most of the time) and was Catholic (how awful that was); I suspected this would be a fun read. It was, though not only humor gets used to make his points. I mean, you get some great lines:
Brokenness is an opportunity for the spirit to enter.
Sin is a failure to love when you have the capacity to do so.
We come because we experience something of God at the Shrine, something that moves, a whisper, a current, in a setting that both rings true and is strangely unsettling, decidedly different, where listening is active if imperfect and where acts of corporal mercy always form part of the picture.

It was a pleasure to read a memoir about being Catholic and gay that wasn't a big ol' wad of misery. This was a book about Author Pomfret's relationship to one of the pillars of his identity as a man and a religious being. It wasn't, however, just a single book; it was a series of stand-up routines written by an out gay Irish Catholic Securities and Exchange Commission bureaucrat with an atheist boyfriend, on a self-assigned mission to save the Church from sinking into moral turpitude (too late!) under Bennie the Rat (Pope Benedict XVI, né Joseph Ratzinger) on the issue of gay marriage. Although the people have changed, notably Bennie the Rat who became the only pope in history to retire instead of die in harness who wasn't an Anti-Pope or under threat of death, the fight for liberalization in the church has not.

Fun, however, was definitely had. Straight people will get as many, if not more, chuckles out of this than will gay guys. The recurring trope Mr. Pomfret uses to describe himself (a colleague at the SEC put his photo in a lineup with the 20th century's ickiest serial killers, and asked people which person in the lineup looked like a lawyer; Pomfret, a lawyer, wasn't selected once) is funny the first few times, but loses punch quickly; likewise his cute nicknames for the people in his quest-story for Catholic gay marriage support. (Note: I read a Kindle edition of this book; for no obvious reason, there is no longer a Kindle edition available...?)

Read this book. It's good, but one SHOULD read it a chapter at a time between other books the way a careful reader does some themed anthologies of poems or stories (eg, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart or Fight Like a Girl. Otherwise, it's like eating carrot cake as your vegetable.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

THE BUCOLIC PLAGUE, hilarious story of two wealthy-ish gay guys who leave Manhattan for Upstate! Scary!

THE BUCOLIC PLAGUE: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir

$13.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Michael Perry meets David Sedaris in this follow-up to Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s beloved debut memoir. Another riotous, moving, and entirely unique story of his attempt to tackle the next phase of life with his partner… on a goat farm in upstate New York.

My Review: Oh no you don't! No sighing, sneaking past this review, and saying how good it is! Sit there and READ this.

Josh and Brent, two of the most annoyingly perfectionist queens Manhattan has ever sucked into its lapidary drum of the effete, are bare-naked and warty as all get-out in this hilarious, touching, brutally honest memoir by the tall one. (Josh.) And he memoirs the way it feels to be human, alive, selfish and self-absorbed and sweet and lovable better than most. He's honest about how hard it is to work like a (highly paid) slave so you can have a dream come true. Then, as so many before him have, he wonders when in the HELL he's going to have time to enjoy the said dream.

Then there's the short one. (Brent.) He isn't writing the book, so of course he doesn't get all the best lines. Just most of them. He's the alpha perfectionist of the pair...good gravy, he worked for MARTHA STEWART!...and he decides, on hearing the tall one articulate his dream to live in their fantabulously gorgeous mansionfarm full time, that He Will Make This Happen. Because he loves, so much, the tall one. The scene in the book where they have that conversation, about why they'd have to give the place up in the rancid economy of 2008, made me cry. What they wanted, what their dreams hung on, *pffft* because the rotten shits on Wall Street wanted morebiggerfatter bonuses.

Now these two aren't guiltless little cogs in the Murrikin Machine, mind. They were both in the sizzle biz, taking home oodles of the spondulix selling people an unattainable dream's unattainable health goals for old farts (the short one) and unnecessary, overpriced goods and services (the tall one). But they made so much more out of their lives...they worked hard, they deserved their success...than the standard script for rural gay boys reads.

And then they found, accidentally and because the tall one is a lousy navigator, the perfect place to turn their well-honed swordsmanship skills at these useless pursuits into the plowshares of a real, and really funny, and very satisfying life.

Their website makes me drool. (Not over them, keep your minds out of the gutter.) The farm, the recipes, the products, the involving and addictive blogs, and of course Polka Spot the llama are tremendous pleasures.

Their TV show, The Fabulous Beekman Boys, was a gem and it's worth seeking out on Amazon Prime. I know that Discovery Networks pulled the plug on the whole channel they ran on, but I'm not over it yet (ten years isn't long enough to forgive). This is Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House for the 21st century (also Amazonable!). Buy it, read it, and heavenly days, recommend it to your friends! The boys need money! Farmer John's goats don't eat air, and that hip replacement wasn't free, and the boys have aging parents who'll need to come live with them soon enough.

Think of the scuff marks. Poor short one. (Brent.)

Monday, June 21, 2021

TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL, the late hunky heart-throb's own words telling his own story

TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL: The Making of a Movie Star
with Eddie Muller
Algonquin Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$12.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Welcome to Hollywood, circa 1950, the end of the Golden Age. A remarkably handsome young boy, still a teenager, gets "discovered" by a big-time movie agent. Because when he takes his shirt off young hearts beat faster, because he is the picture of innocence and trust and need, he will become a star. It seems almost preordained. The open smile says, "You will love me," and soon the whole world does.

The young boy's name was Tab Hunter—a made-up name, of course, a Hollywood name—and it was his time. Stardom didn't come overnight, although it seemed that way. In fact, the fame came first, when his face adorned hundreds of magazine covers; the movies, the studio contract, the name in lights—all that came later. For Tab Hunter was a true product of Hollywood, a movie star created from a stable boy, a shy kid made even more so by the way his schoolmates—both girls and boys—reacted to his beauty, by a mother who provided for him in every way except emotionally, and by a secret that both tormented him and propelled him forward.

In Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, Hunter speaks out for the first time about what it was like to be a movie star at the end of the big studio era, to be treated like a commodity, to be told what to do, how to behave, whom to be seen with, what to wear. He speaks also about what it was like to be gay, at first confused by his own fears and misgivings, then as an actor trapped by an image of boy-next-door innocence. And when he dared to be difficult, to complain to the studio about the string of mostly mediocre movies that were assigned to him, he learned that just like any manufactured product, he was disposable—disposable and replaceable.

Hunter's career as a bona fide movie star lasted a decade. But he persevered as an actor, working continuously at a profession he had come to love, seeking—and earning—the respect of his peers, and of the Hollywood community.

And so, Tab Hunter Confidential is at heart a story of survival—of the giddy highs of stardom, and the soul-destroying lows when phone calls begin to go unreturned; of the need to be loved, and the fear of being consumed; of the hope of an innocent boy, and the rueful summation of a man who did it all, and who lived to tell it all.

***R.I.P. TAB HUNTER*** He died 8 July 2018 at 86. He was married to Allan Glaser for 35 years.

My Review: Memoir of 1950s movie heartthrob Tab Hunter, his Southern California sun-kissed boyhood, his coming of gay age, and the effects of being part of the star-maker machinery of Hollywood as it existed at that time on a modestly talented, very very pretty boy. It's obvious that Mr. Hunter paid attention to the business of Hollywood...he gives a real and thorough account of the whys and wherefores of the last gasp of the studio era's decisions.

Not as salacious as some, and a whole lot sweeter than most. Mr. Hunter says very few unpleasant things about others in his memoir, and is in fact so generous to his exes that I wonder how large a role the Algonquin legal department played in the setting of the tone. Either that or this is one of the NICEST old stars ever born. The photos are all nicely chosen to illustrate Mr. Hunter's textual points. I liked this book, but I don't think anyone not interested in Hollywood, gay Hollywood, or the Fifties would do anything more than yawn through a Pearl-Rule 50pp. And, it is important to say, he is very much not telling a happy coming-out story. "Out" is not the goal of the book, so be aware of that fact and adjust your expectations or avoid the read.

If you ever had the pleasure of hearing his one-man show, you'll sniffle a little at some of his trademark nostrums:
You see, people hang labels, tags of false identification, on the people that disturb their own sense of reality too much, like the bells that used to be hung on the necks of lepers.
Sometimes when you’re confused, you push away the people you shouldn’t. You’re either afraid of being hurt or of hurting them.
I had become aware of the three stages of stardom. First is 'Get me Tab Hunter,' followed by, 'Get me a Tab Hunter type,' followed by, 'Who the hell is Tab Hunter?'

Sunday, June 20, 2021

NATIONALIST LOVE, a Polish graphic novel about QUILTBAG people...just not the ones you're thinking of


Europe Comics (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: When Zapsky and Byro meet during a right-wing nationalist march, their joint escape from the police results in an unexpected and violent outburst of passion. Their initial euphoria quickly turns into doubt and fear—after all, if their buddies found out about them, the consequences would be terrible... But now that they’ve come together, will they be able to simply forget and move on with their lives? Or is it something more lasting, despite the risk it represents for both?

"Nationalist Love" is the third graphic novel by Jakub Topor, nominated for the graphic novel of the year award at the Lodz Comics Festival.


My Review
: Two skinhead boys, Zapsky and Byro, meet at a hate-rally held in their Polish city. The Nationalists, our Proud Boys writ Euro, throw stuff and set fires and hurt cops. These are some revolting people. They're each stupider than the other, they got no class or brains, yet still they find each other...attractive? available? attainable maybe. Their stupid antics require them to hide from the cops...naturally they decide to do it together, since Zapsky's mother is away for a month. Hijinks ensue.

This isn't the first time I've seen these boys, just never so thoroughly reduced to their ugliest shapes and colors. As a not-especially-convinced experiencer of sequential art, this was always something I found irritating...this kind of "artwork" would get the horselaugh from so many artsy types I've known. I'd absorbed that prejudice and simply never bothered to challenge or examine it until the past few years. Now, I look at this art's clumsiness and its garishness and think...well, how better to narrate this story?

Whaddaya expect, anyway, in a world centered on two losers without a shred of class or decency between them? They are always gonna have to hide abnormal, sick sexual proclivities from the world their undereducated, credulous, angry, and powerless class lives in. Funnily enough, like so many who live in that hate-defined and -bounded world, it's also the one they resent. But Zapsky and Byro got lucky, found each other....found love...which is the most dangerous thing of all. Zapsky definitely feels this, after a brief and deeply unsettling period of being truly happy with Byro, and under pressure to prove he's not a fag to his co-workers, he sends a break-up text that callously dismisses Byro.

Zapsky's Mammele, escaping her loser son's ubiquity and her own pointless existence, is at a beach resort-cum-health spa. And guess what? She meets A Man too! (Called Manfred. No lie.) The sheer awfulness of the art, as in the ugliness of the people and the garishness of the colors, goes so well with this horrible tale of numerous disgusting creeps that it's almost eerie. And that's when I felt myself really giving up, shedding the weight of, that habit of contempt. It isn't pretty! But who said art needs to be pretty? I like Jackson Pollock and Agnes Martin, for gods' sweet sake. I'm not one of those Impressionism-über-Alles sofa-matching-art people!

Or maybe I am...and hide it from myself by liking things that made my mother cringe? That certainly includes comic books...I've been so snobby about them for so long that it feels fake to say, "there is no other way this story could've been told, and it very much needed to be told," but it's just the truth.

Chapter 3 is called "Spoiled Rich Kids"...seems to be a pattern among Polish émigré writers. Like Jedrowski in Swimming in the Dark, Topor gets a character (Byro Bad-skin here) among the wealthy who are privileged to consume and exist as they like. Then he lets him sink or swim...sink in this case. Byro's rebounding from his breakup text, and searches the Internet for gay clubs...he decides he's going to fix himself up, be less Nationalist looking, by dressing better and hiding his skinhead under his loser father's long-unused toupée. The club scene scares him, he doesn't know the culture and is about to get himself into serious trouble but is rescued by one of the rich kids. They decide to keep him when leaving the club becomes a good idea...he almost loses his cool when a "darkie" (an Arab guy called Jamal) is in the house party, too. He's eventually, and inevitably, outed as a Nationalist; but not until after kissing a straight guy at the party. The violence the posers inflict on Byro is pretty mild...more about humiliating him for not being like them. And that, despite the fact he doesn't *want* to be like them, is the worst rejection he suffers. (Not that he is recovered from being rejected by Zapsky, please understand. Just trying to figure out how to move on.)

Mammele gets lucky with Manfred. That scene's just grisly. Even Byro's parents decide to fool around (more grisly still). Byro's Dadzio figures out the kid's got his wig. That should be fun! I thought, watching him explain what the hell he was doing with the damn thing....

Chapter 4 is "Zapsky Looks for a Girlfriend"...the co-workers' plan to get Zapsky laid results in him finding one. Because he's never been in any relationship at all except the brief honeymoon with Byro, he ignores the red flags of an abusive, angry, selfish woman looking for something in exchange for the sex she doles out to him. In his months-long journey through this hell, Zapsky confronts low self-esteem, and his work pals do a lot to support him and care for him. They are crude but actually touchingly kind. Since we focus on Zapsky, we never learn anything more about what happened after Byro's night out...disappointingly...or about Mammele's reactions to the girl Zapsky gets with.

But long story short: Girl gets dumped. Zapsky gets lonely. One rainy day who does he see under a bus shelter but...BYRO!! It's a loving reunion, the bond of real love between them reasserts itself, and they, well, do what young guys do when under the heady influence of reciprocal attraction and genuine connection. They fool around.

...and there's a PoS from their earlier Nationalist lives filming their reunion.

Naturally, the evidence gets shown to the wrong people. All the old gang, I mean this literally, are on the hunt for Zapsky. They find him.

Things end as they so often do.

It's awful to know that this happens and happens and happens to men and women, cis and trans, all around the world because "don't be so sensitive" and "it's just a joke" aren't seen for what they are.

They are normalizations of hate, and soft volleys preparing the way for violence.

I downloaded this graphic novel from Europe Comics, an outfit with whom I am, if you're in the same boat, here's their mission statement from NetGalley:
Europe Comics is a joint digital initiative run by 13 European comics industry players from 8 European countries. Its main purpose is the creation of a pan-European catalog of award-winning graphic novels from across the continent, published digitally in English and available through major retailers and library networks. Europe Comics also works towards the promotion of European authors and the creation of a European comics online directory, meant for both comics readers and professionals. this Polish creator found his way to this American oldster via a social system intermediated by several levels of technology that are under a lot of pressure all the time to justify its worst users' behaviors. This is an example of positive social and personal results from being massively online. Say hallelujah and bring the jubilee.

Saturday, June 19, 2021


GENEVIEVE VALENTINE (Author); Ariel Medel, Jenny Frison (artists)

Dynamite (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$15.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: To the thrill of rabid fans the world over, television's Xena: Warrior Princess is back for swashbuckling new adventures!

After the Twilight of the Gods, the world is precariously uncertain, and Xena and Gabrielle have been missing for twenty-five years. The power of Rome is growing; Caesar is determined to conquer by lies what he can't conquer by force, and the people at its edges know what's coming.

Our heroines return to stop him before they have to wage war against a man they once called a friend... but along the way, Xena will have to confront her past against a rogue band of women warriors, and Gabrielle, whose secret visions are becoming prophecy, will have to protect her partner at any cost.


My Review
: I'm not a native comic-book reader. It wasn't A Thing, I just wasn't offered them by anyone I knew until (apparently) too late in my development of story-acquiring techniques. In my ongoing quest to remain mentally flexible, though, I determinedly seek out graphic novels to challenge my preconceived notion that they're somehow lesser-than and unequal to text story presentations.

Xena, OTOH, has never once since she showed up in The Adventures of Iolaus and that other jackanapes I don't like, failed to amuse, entertain, delight, or just generally please me. So what could be better than a freebie look at a Xena story? No risk, decent possibility of reward.

Rewarded. I can't reproduce the artwork from this lovely story, sorry, but good gawd is it lush and smooth and expertly emotion-tweaking. It's clearly meant for adults, and by adults I mean mental ones if not necessarily chronological ones.

Everything about the artwork as relates to the story made all my hairs stand up. I kept going back a few pages to see where *this* little detail turned into that pretty focus. I love that paintings of Hieronymus Bosch for this same effect on my attention, though I'm no way no how comparing the capable artists here to The Great Master Bosch. Don't, fellow comic-book snobs, make the mistake of thinking you're in for a lesser storytelling experience. Different, yes; lesser, no.



Dynamite (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$15.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In a time of ancient gods, warlords and kings...a land in turmoil called out for a hero! She was XENA, a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle! In this all-new series, writer VITA AYALA (Black Panther, Shuri, Wonder Woman, The Wilds) and artist OLYMPIA SWEETMAN throw Xena and her companion Gabrielle headfirst into a mysterious adventure. Can Xena discover the secrets of a village full of super-strong children, before jealous and petty GODS get involved?


My Review
: The very best thing about this storyline is that Xena and Gabrielle are very, very firmly A Couple. There is not hinting, or hairpin dropping, or waffling: The ladies are together and they are not making any bones about it. As it goddamned well always should have been.

There is a risk in doing something unfamiliar and not entirely to one's taste twice in a row. That is what happened here. It's not just the artists weren't quite as aesthetically to my personal taste as the ones was that the illustrations were uneven in quality.

I'm still very, very impressed that the storytelling is so well mated to the ideas and images. I'm just not quite as blown away. Still, I remain open to the pleasures this visual storytelling medium has to offer a very textual person. That's quite a thing for an artform to be able to do.

Friday, June 18, 2021

THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS, Victorian setting--usual suspects--good story


Ballantine Books
$28.00 hardcover, available now

The Kindle edition is on sale for $2.99.

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In this remarkable debut based on actual events, as a team of male scholars compiles the first Oxford English Dictionary, one of their daughters decides to collect the "objectionable" words they omit.

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the "Scriptorium," a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme's place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word "bondmaid" flutters to the floor. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means slave-girl, she withholds it from the OED and begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.

As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women's and common folks' experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.

Set during the height of the women's suffrage movement with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men.

Based on actual events and combed from author Pip Williams's experience delving into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary, this highly original novel is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.


My Review
: First, read his:
Some words are more than letters on a page, don't you think? They have shape and texture. They are like bullets, full of energy, and when you give one breath you can feel its sharp edge against your lip.
I often wondered what kind of slip I would be written on if I was a word. Something too long, certainly. Probably the wrong colour. A scrap of paper that didn't quite fit. I worried that perhaps I would never find my place in the pigeon-holes at all.
A vulgar word, well placed and said with just enough vigour, can express far more than its polite equivalent.

There is an immense gulf between thoughts and words...Esme, as a girl in the almost-all-male world of dictionary-obsessed dad Harry, discovers again and again that the ideas we robe in words aren't seen by those who hear them as we've made them in our minds. The factual world of making the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) presided over by Dr. James Murray is expanded to include a fictional word-mad girl-child whose run-ins with lying adults, oblivious adults, and peers without her ruling passion for The Words We Use are the meat of this delicious, if difficult to deal with at times, novel. Esme Nicholl does not spend her life the way Dr. Murray's typically Victorian daughters do. Her days are spent being educated at school; her afternoons with the men at the Scriptorium as they collate and pigeonhole and excise the tens of thousands of definitions and attestations through usage that arrive in Dr. Murray's home/workhouse from around the world. Careless dropping or deliberate deletion, it makes no never-mind to young Esme. She re-homes them in her treasure-chest, under a housemaid's bed, their shared secret.

The dropped words, Esme notices as her life gives her more analytical tools, are often words commonly used by, among, and about women and their activities. Her world is coming for her, bent on controlling her and bending her to its will. Her Godmother Edith, a factual person really nicknamed Ditte, is a very unconventional woman and a prolific contributor the OED. She's acted as a co-parent, in a limited way, to Esme; yet she fails her when Esme desperately needs her simply because Ditte doesn't live in Oxford, let alone in daily contact with Esme.
“Dr. Murray said you and Beth were proflitic contributors,” I said, with some authority.

“Prolific,” Ditte corrected.

“Is that a nice thing to be?”

“It means we have collected a lot of words and quotations for Dr. Murray’s dictionary, and I’m sure he meant it as a compliment.”

The relationship is pretty tidily encapsulated there. Older mentor, not quite understanding the mentee but giving great guidance anyway; just not quite what was really needed. The words for things are centered; the denotations are generously given, while the connotations are left more or less to Esme's maturing brain to construct as best she can. She is, after all, equipped with well-designed tools...but no manuals to train their user in their best use.

In her word-collecting fever, Esme amasses much raw data, many denotations. Her goal for it remains unfocused until she realizes that the words' connotations give her the needed feminist perspective: she and her half of humanity are doomed to be controlled until they can participate in life as political actors instead of passive observers. Yes, she discovers Feminism and becomes a suffragette. And uses her life-long capacity to work with words to give sharp focus to her purpose.
If war could change the nature of men, it would surely change the nature of words.
“Words change over time, you see. The way they look, the way they sound; sometimes even their meaning changes. They have their own history.”

Something I wish people who fuss over neologisms and redefinitions would process. Things are growing or dying. There is no stasis in natural systems, and no homeostasis doesn't is a finely balanced state but predicated on constant shifts and changes that must support a larger whole's proper, healthy functioning. Just like language...the words are always tip-tilting, reconfiguring themselves, shedding pieces and adding others; but the language as a whole lives and thrives and, broadly, remains the same. Only different.
It struck me that we are never fully at ease when we are aware of another's gaze. Perhaps we are never fully ourselves. In the desire to please or impress, to persuade or dominate, our movements become conscious, our features set.

That snapshot effect, the mask of Persona slid over a person's face, is what Esme is resisting as she rescues rejected and deleted words from the magisterial OED. Her women's words are the ones men most need, and are supremely reluctant, to hear. Esme's project, fictional of course, is the titular dictionary, with words like "menstruation" (simply too earthy and shuddersome for the frail little men making the OED) to "knackered" because it's vulgar and ugly when a more refined person could say "exhausted" or "listless." Esme thinks "bollocks to that" and spends her adulthood on the many pieces that must be moved around and reconfigured to make a society that can even properly think about a way to include women as adult beings.

And herein the reason I don't give this book a five-star warble of ecstasy...the passage of time. It doesn't. I'm herky-jerkyed into different stages of Esme and the world's life but the setting remains...internal. It's The Esme Show, instead of Truman; she's the star and no doubt. But there's a degree of alienation in that. Thank goodness there are so many dates to open chapters! Too bad they don't mean more. It's certainly true that we, in our daily rounds, don't think carefully about where the screens in the piston of our french-press coffeepot come from, or how and when to clean or replace them. But some sense of Esme's adjustments to the world around her, since her project is to effect true change upon it, would've helped me grasp the maturation parts of time's passage. I felt the lack of that connection keenly.

Esme's relationships were also a bit troubling to read for this reason. Lizzie, her female exemplar in residence, was a lower-class girl whose best hopes weren't as high as she's actually risen by working for the Murrays and becoming Esme's comadre. By rights she should be a dead young worn-out whore. So the way the privileged miss and the rough serving girl should practically leap off the page at me, right?
“Me needlework will always be here,” she said. “I see this and I feel…well, I don’t know the word. Like I’ll always be here.”

“Permanent,” I said. “And the rest of the time?”

“I feel like a dandelion just before the wind blows.”
My mother was like a word with a thousand slips. Lizzie’s mother was like a word with only two, barely enough to be counted. And I had treated one as if it were superfluous to need.

It's really the fate of most of us...we vanish into nothingness as soon as we assume room temperature. Ephemeral as life is, what I found wantimg in those perfectly lovely passages was the solidity of Life beating Esme with her own responsibility to and for the older but more vulnerable on a practical life-level woman.

Still and all, I'm so pleased that I read this wonderful story. I think it could have made more of an impact on me had some stylistic choices been made differently; that is always the way with making art, no one can create something as powerful and fully realized as this book is without making choices that won't work for everyone. I felt very strongly the aura of choices and decisions affirmatively, consideredly made at every turn. This is in no way a slapdash or ill-made work of fiction. Its real and its fictional characters are treated with equal gravitas. That the factual characters take up less screen time is a decision that the author and editor clearly planned carefully and executed deftly. I can offer no more heartfelt recommendation than "read this book soon." I *could* have, if certain other, less distancing, choices had been made, turned obnoxious pest and shouted at you to get the book NOW read it on the Jitney or in the Admiral's Club but just GET IT!!

But really, does it get that much better than this?
I thought about all the words I’d collected from Mabel and from Lizzie and from other women: women who gutted fish or cut cloth or cleaned the ladies’ public convenience on Magdalen Street. They spoke their minds in words that suited them, and were reverent as I wrote their words on slips. These slips were precious to me, and I hid them in the trunk to keep them safe. But from what? Did I fear they would be scrutinised and found deficient? Or were those fears I had for myself? I never dreamed the givers had any hopes for their words beyond my slips, but it was suddenly clear that no one but me would ever read them. The women’s names, so carefully written, would never be set in type. Their words and their names would be lost as soon as I began to forget them. My Dictionary of Lost Words was no better than the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons: it hid what should be seen and silenced what should be heard.

Pip Williams: I salute you for writing a grown-up book for real, passionate readers.