Wednesday, July 6, 2022

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


FIRE ON THE ISLAND: A Romantic Thriller
TIMOTHY JAY SMITH

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

Rating: 4* of five

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

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

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

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

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


THE FOURTH COURIER
TIMOTHY JAY SMITH

Arcade Crimewise
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

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

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

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

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 1, 2022

Happy Long weekend, North Americans!


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

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

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

Thursday, June 30, 2022

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


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

Rating: 4.5* of five

WINNER OF THE 31st Lambda Literary Award—BEST BISEXUAL FICTION!

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

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

I CHECKED THIS BOOK OUT OF AMAZON'S PRIME READING PROGRAM. USE THIS BENEFITS! WE'RE HOW THEY LIVE, SO TAKE ALL ADVANTAGES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++



THIS CLEAVING AND THIS BURNING
J.A. WAINWRIGHT

Guernica Editions
$17.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

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

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


THE WASTELAND
HARPER JAMESON

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

Rating: 3.75* of five

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

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

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

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

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

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

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

–and–

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

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

Baloney indeed, and more than just that in a penitential dry sandwich consumed in a lonely penitentiary. With the aplomb of a dab hand at this fantastical-reimaging stuff, Eliot's life is peopled with the souls embodied and conjured on a magical-realist visit with the great poet. We even see him conjuring Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock (whose peaches are uneaten and coffee spoons resolutely empty) on the day he learns his new crush, Jack, is no longer with the bank. But Mr. Eliot is in for a major surprise in this case....

...as are the readers of this historical fantasia on themes of gay men's circumscribed lives. Mr. Eliot, for I cannot bear to call him Tom, is a creative and passionate soul in the body of a Puritan. He is deformed and damaged by a world he despises as he obeys it. Mr. Eliot will get his revenge. He blares forth a trumpet of poetic passion that has stood its ground atop English-language poetry. Its creator is given, here, by Author Jameson, a life that commingles reality and fantasy as only a poet could merit, warrant, summon forth from beyond the grave's creative silence.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


ARCADIA
EMMANUELLE BAYAMACK-TAM
(tr. Ruth Diver)
Seven Stories Press
$12.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

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

Winner, Prix du Livre Inter, 2019

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

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

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

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


THE GEOGRAPHY OF PLUTO
CHRISTOPHER DiRADDO

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

Rating: 4* of five

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

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

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

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

I RECEIVED THIS AS A GIFT FROM A CANADIAN FRIEND. THANKS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


MY VOLCANO
JOHN ELIZABETH STINTZI

Two Dollar Radio
$18.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

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

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

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

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

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DIARY OF A FILM
NIVEN GOVINDEN

Deep Vellum
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

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

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

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

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

–and–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


THE VISITORS
JESSI JEZEWSKA STEVENS

And Other Stories
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3? 5? 9? stars of five

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

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

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

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

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

THE 16th SECOND: The Wild Life and Crazy Times of Colt Michael–What Really Happened & A UNION LIKE OURS: The Love Story of F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney


A UNION LIKE OURS: The Love Story of F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney
SCOTT BANE

Bright Leaf
$24.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: After a chance meeting aboard the ocean liner Paris in 1924, Harvard University scholar and activist F. O. Matthiessen and artist Russell Cheney fell in love and remained inseparable until Cheney’s death in 1945. During the intervening years, the men traveled throughout Europe and the United States, achieving great professional success while contending with serious personal challenges, including addiction, chronic disease, and severe depression.

During a hospital stay, years into their relationship, Matthiessen confessed to Cheney that “never once has the freshness of your life lost any trace of its magic for me. Every day is a new discovery of your wealth.” Situating the couple’s private correspondence alongside other sources, Scott Bane tells the remarkable story of their relationship in the context of shifting social dynamics in the United States. From the vantage point of the present day, with marriage equality enacted into law, Bane provides a window into the realities faced by same-sex couples in the early twentieth century, as they maintained relationships in the face of overt discrimination and the absence of legal protections.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Never have the words "it takes one to know one" been put to a more positive, more constructive use than in Scott Bane's double biography of F.O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney. Bane and his husband, journalist David Dunlap, are the same generational distance apart...fifteen years as opposed to twenty...that F.O. and Russell were, and face some of the same cultural mismatches that they did. Like them, the author and his husband are in it for the long haul. It grounds this work in a shared lived experience, then, and explains the recognition that Bane brings to the delight and the toil of building a life together. Romance is about passion and excitement, discovery and laughter; marriage is about farts and morning breath, balancing the checkbook...and laughter. Can't laugh together? Won't last. These men loved the same things, art and culture and their upper-class life; but they always stayed in touch with the interpersonal fundamentals that provide a rock to build on.

From their providential meeting aboard the ocean liner Paris, F.O. and Russell were companions. F.O.'s youth, the fourth of four children of divoced parents, was spent in Tarrytown, a short train trip from Manhattan and its gay-sex paradise that he took full advantage of. He was a boarder at the Hackley School, a Unitarian-run college prep organization that gave him the freedom from his (slightly neglectful, it sounded to me) mother to come and go as he would within curfews. It was also a more-or-less accepted thing that boarding schools would have sexual experimentation in them. It's not different now, but it was more laissez-faire then, so long as it didn't transgress limits. Russell's life, as he was from an even-wealthier family, was less structured around upper-middle-class concerns; he was eleventh of eleven children, and accordingly largely left to his own devices. Like F.O., Russell went to Yale and was brought into Skull and Bones; unlike F.O., he was not focused or driven. The artistic urge that Russell pursued wasn't driving him, the way F.O.'s ambitions were driving him; the direction F.O. would take wasn't set but the passion for reading, literature, was there and the organizational zeal was too, yet to be married. They were equally well matched in their shared passion for men, though again at ends of a spectrum: F.O. loved sex and sexuality, with men; Russell loved men, and expressed it through sex.
This 1926 portrait from RussellCheney.com of F.O. in Florence shows how tenderly Russell regarded his "Matty"
These men, then, were perfectly suited to each other, their union fated and destined to be one that was harmonious. Though it certainly faced challenges...Russell's alcoholism and health issues, F.O.'s political convictions drew unwanted attention, the pair swapped places as the financial backer of their life together...it was an enduring institution in their lives. F.O.'s tender care for Russell as his alcoholism took over his life was exemplary. Author Bane and his husband have faced down other health challenges together, which really informs the way he writes about the frailty of the person you love overtaking all other concerns. As the love of my life died of AIDS 30 years ago this past May, I am very clear about this cost and the willingness the committed spouse has to bear it. I felt so...validated...by this multilayered reflection of my own life.

The ending of the book was hard to read. It's a given that people will die; it's not a given that this will ever be easy, will ever be quantifiably manageable. F.O.'s ultimate inability to save Russell from the consequences of his alcoholism felt so tragic to me. It's always true that an addict loves their addiction, but we always hope they'll love us more. Sadly for F.O., Russell couldn't love him more than the booze. After Russell's 1945 death at the then-venerable age of sixty-three, F.O. entered the long-term partner's decline. It was exacerbated by his ongoing conflicts with a severely conservatizing society, his employers' attitude towards his politics, and the vast shoreless ocean of survivorhood.

In the end, F.O. Matthiessen, a monadnock of literary theory and a champion of modernist literary products, could not face the world without his center and mainstay. He took his own life on (appropriately) April Fool's Day, 1950, at forty-eight. We are much the poorer for his absence from our cultural conversation far too soon.

I hope you'll read this fascinating, well-made and thoroughly sourced life of two fine gay men. In #PrideMonth, how can you resist?

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


THE 16TH SECOND: The Wild Life and Crazy Times of Colt Michael—What Really Happened
TED A RICHARD

W. Brand Publishing
$22.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: The 16th Second is the autobiography of a small-town gay boy from Deep South Louisiana who survived homophobia, alcohol and drug addiction, sexual abuse, rape, and HIV/AIDS to become somebody that no one, not even he, expected.

The story winds through his childhood, where Ted had become accustomed to coming in second. Weaving a tale of drama, heartache, and failure to the path leading him to figure out what it takes to come in first, and why it mattered.

His childhood recollection of “never being good enough” morphs into a world of delusions of grandeur as his search for fame seems to never materialize which causes him to create his own definition of fame.

It is a story of redemption and success after years of searching helped him realize that he had to let go of the fame of the past (which never existed), and begin living in the present in order to secure his future.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: My fellow old gay Texan guys: Remember Colt Michael? Here he is again! If you read This Week in Texas in the 1980s like I did...well, you'll remember Colt Michael. I now know he was Ted Richard, a Catholic Cajun boy. We even worked for the same department store (me before him), Foley's. Never met the man then, but I know him better now than I ever would've had we met in our 20s. (Though seeing the photos from the 1980s editions of TWIT was really cool.)

What I thought most about was how similar we were in the outlines of our experiences...losing a gay high-school friend to vehicle accidents, being brought to know our real sexual natures by older men whose experience was just perfect for the awakening, being raped by trusted authority figures (his a priest, mine my mother)...and how very much we both lost to AIDS. My goddesses, what a scourge.

What makes me rate this book as a four-star read, then, is that sense of fellow feeling, and the way he writes. It's like having a conversation with him, he definitely "writes the way he talks." That worked for me; it might or might not for you. How much do you want an excitable old gay guy whoopin' and hollerin' in his Cajun accent right in your ear? Do what I did, read a chapter a day, and even those who maybe don't want to have the whole experience all at once will likely enjoy it.

As to why you'd want to read it...learn something from your elders? relive a little corner of your past? experience a life very unlike your own? Whatever resonates. I hope you'll give Ted/Colt a few hours of your time.

Monday, June 27, 2022

BI: Bisexual, Pansexual, Fluid, and Genderqueer Youth & THE TRAGEDY OF HETEROSEXUALTY & BI: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality


THE TRAGEDY OF HETEROSEXUALITY
JANE WARD

NYU Press
$26.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A troubling account of heterosexual desire in the era of #MeToo

Heterosexuality is in crisis. Reports of sexual harassment, misconduct, and rape saturate the news in the era of #MeToo. Straight men and women spend thousands of dollars every day on relationship coaches, seduction boot camps, and couple’s therapy in a search for happiness.

In The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Jane Ward smartly explores what, exactly, is wrong with heterosexuality in the twenty-first century, and what straight people can do to fix it for good. She shows how straight women, and to a lesser extent straight men, have tried to mend a fraught patriarchal system in which intimacy, sexual fulfillment, and mutual respect are expected to coexist alongside enduring forms of inequality, alienation, and violence in straight relationships.

Ward also takes an intriguing look at the multi-billion-dollar self-help industry, which markets goods and services to help heterosexual couples without addressing the root of their problems. Ultimately, she encourages straight men and women to take a page out of queer culture, reminding them “about the human capacity to desire, fuck, and show respect at the same time.”

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I grew up in a wealthy white suburban area, with parents whose last child I was. They had long since ended the honeymoon phase of marriage; they had two daughters they each pretty thoroughly disliked at least one of; their feelings about each other were still in flux. Along I came; everything changed in their middle-aged world and my sisters' teens. Absolutely no one came out of that pressure cooker unmangled.

I am, in other words, very much in sympathy with the author's thesis that heterosexuals aren't happier than we are.

The author puts the blame for the unhappiness squarely on men and their misogyny. The institutions men have built are designed to reinforce straight white male supremacy. Gay men, too, if white, participate in the male-designed system of woman-degrading misogyny. To their detriment, of course; to all male beings' detriment.

As far as it goes, this is pretty inarguably like the world one sees outside one's doors and windows, so am I going to beef with that? Hm. I'm not sure it counts as a beef, but allow me to assure you, Author Ward, that women whether heterosexual, bisexual, or lesbian, or any combination thereof, are perfectly capable of being horribly racist, sexist, and abusive. Allow me to tell you about my mother's incestuous sexual abuse of my ephebe self; her phony "christian conversion" that enabled her to use a whole new vocabulary of hateful, denigrating, destructive invective aimed at making sure I was eternally off-balance and unsure of my male self's worth...the aforementioned sisters and their litany of belittling and insulting characterizations of me...so, yeah, about those awful and abusive men: they had mothers whose actions were, if examined carefully, pretty awful. Was that solely and entirely the mothers' response to patriarchy and heteronormativity? I beg to differ. Some people are just not very nice and should be not be encouraged to spread that by having children!

Yet now our QUILTBAG brethren and sistern are falling over themselves to get married and have kids! We're equal, we can do the same things straight people do! And here, Author Ward, you and I agree: Shouldn't we be liberating our straight family from this structure designed to control and contain women, not rushing into it for ourselves? Isn't that a better project all the way around? Allow people to design their own lives, and stay away from prescribed identities like "husband" or "wife" or "parent" if those aren't appealing.

Suddenly the blind panic of the red-meat right to clamp down on abortion first, then come after the rest of the bodily and spiritual autonomy that so threatens their control, makes all the sense in the world. Heterosexuality is, from a QUILTBAG person's perspective, a terrible tragedy indeed. It's conflated with heteronormativity. Demoting "heterosexuality" to a sexual behavior is a darn good project. I myownself have engaged in heterosexuality (didn't much like it). In heteronormativity, even, and I REALLY didn't like that. Stopped it a long time ago.

So Author Ward, standing outside the institution and hollering at the guards, is onto a winner for all of me. She wouldn't be if she hadn't decoupled "heterosexuality" to the straight version of "homosexuality"...that simply describes what sexual behaviors one engages in. Now the problem, the enemy, is identified as "heteronormativity" or the cultural monolith of patriarchal abuse and control. The inmates in the institution need freeing! They need it badly and now. This moment in history is an inflection point. We can see that because every single facet of the progressive social and economic agendas are being fought by the social-control freaks using every tool and trick the centuries of their ruthlessly enforced dominance have given them. Because they know that, given freedom to choose, people aren't going to choose their way in majority numbers.

Racists fear being made into a minority...why? Heteronormatives fear living in a world with people who love in different ways...why? Because they fear the repression they're nakedly, openly enacting against us. "Sucks to be you" is their silent, though getting less and less so, taunt.

So there's value in this exercise for me, a cis white American male, a scion of almost godlike privilege.

The problems with a lesbian-only critique of straightness are clear, including a lack of critical straight participants in this exercise and the exclusion of all Y-chromosome bearers. I refuse to believe not one male has ever made a critique of heteronormative culture that is valid, that does not wholly or partially exemplify the misogynistic mode of control. But there's another beam in the author's eye: TERFs like Adrienne Rich and Cherie Moraga. Of all the marginalized groups that need a voice in this chorus, the trans community is top of my list...not one word. I'm poking at the author's lack of inclusiveness because inclusion is what the author's demanding. But only for XXwomen...? I thought biological determinism was among the patriarchy's tools of control....

So I don't think the read is perfect. I do think it enlightened me and brought thoughts to the surface of my mind that I really enjoy having there. Yes, we need to educate our heteronormative society's mainstream about the costs to them all of the horrible system that's in place. But let's stop excluding people as part of that, and Author Ward's presentation of trenchant and valuable arguments does that regrettable thing.

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BI: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality
JULIA SHAW

Abrams Press
$26.00 hardcover , available tomorrow

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Despite all the welcome changes that have happened in our culture and laws over the past few decades in regards to sexuality, the subject remains one of the most influential but least understood aspects of our lives. For psychologist and bestselling author Julia Shaw, this is both professional and personal—Shaw studies the science of sexuality and she herself is proudly and vocally bisexual.

It’s an admission, she writes, that usually causes people’s pupils to dilate, their cheeks to flush, and their questions to start flowing. Ask people to name famous bisexual actors, politicians, writers, or scientists, and they draw a blank. Despite statistics that show bisexuality is more common than homosexuality, bisexuality is often invisible.

In BI: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality, Shaw probes the science and culture of attraction beyond the binary. From the invention of heterosexuality to the history of the Kinsey scale, as well as asylum seekers trying to defend their bisexuality in a court of law, there is so much more to explore than most have ever realized. Drawing on her own original research—and her own experiences—this is a personal and scientific manifesto; it’s an exploration of the complexities of the human sexual experience and a declaration of love and respect for the nonconformists among us.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I've contended publicly that bisexuality is the disrespected stepchild of the QUILTBAG community. When one says "bisexual" without the modifier "man/male" the presumption is one's referring to a woman/female. And that's what Author Shaw has set out to correct...that sense of non-inclusion that heteronormative society, whether straight or gay, attaches to labeled people. No one ever explains to you, "oh, I'm straight" because we assume they are unless they make a point of not being. And bisexuality, being by its nature focused on sexual activity, is simply not an acceptable identity in the heteronormative prescriptivist world.

Author Shaw, who also includes a lot of other identities in her discussion, corrects this misperception with an assertion that bisexuality is in fact an identity and to diminish that is to indulge in bi erasure. When that erasure comes at you from all sources and angles, including the one with a letter for your identity in its public face, that can feel disheartening and rejecting.

What Author Shaw does is build a good case, based on research and science, for the existence and validity of the identity "bisexual" as a separate thing. It's an equal to "gay" or "lesbian" or "straight" (which term I dislike because its connotation is "as opposed to 'bent'" and that doesn't thrill me) not a way-station on a road heading one way or the other. Thinking outside binaries is the great revolution in consciousness of this century. It's a giant gift to our descendants to recognize, affirm, and support their outside-our-experience identities. That does mean, however, learning what those identities are as well as what they want to be called.

Learning about bisexuality is not the challenge it was in the past. When I was a teen and wondering what to call myself ("faggot" wasn't gonna cut it for internal monologues, but it's accurate) I found a book called Loving Them Both: A Study of Bisexuality by Colin MacInnes, son of Angela Thirkell and her first husband. "Maybe that fits," I thought after reading it. It didn't, but at least I found something to help me try on an identity that just does not exist in pop culture. That book existed for me; it gave me information I'd never have found otherwise (though it was written in 1970 and was very much of its time); and the newcomers to adolescence and adulthood need the same help I found. That's Author Ward's book.

That she is a psychologist, with a special interest in criminality, makes me believe her research chops are top-notch even if I don't know what sources she's used. Consulting the Notes will disabuse anyone of the notion that she's just makin' it up. This is someone who makes a living as a psychologist, there's no way in heck she doesn't cite her sources. And they're impressively complete and diverse.

What's all this in aid of? It's a sad fact that, like most people who are bisexual, Author Ward wasn't really sure what that meant or if it, as an identity not a sexual desire, really existed. Unlike most people, she set out to do something to help people in their own searches for identity when they're feeling surer and surer that "straight" is for jackets not for them. There's always a process in developing an identity. In most cultures it's called "growing up." In modern Western culture, we're possessed of both a bewildering freedom to decide for ourselves and a grim paucity of examples for anything outside heteronormative society. Remember I said the author was a psychologist? Bet you can't guess what she did....

These are Author Ward's "Six Stages of Bidentity Development."

  1. Stage 1. Loneliness: I must be the only one who feels this way, no one ever talks about it.

  2. Stage 2. Euphoria: I'm NOT the only one! Say hallelujah and bring the jubilee!! Now I can start living!

  3. Stage 3. Disappointment: What do you mean, I'm not queer/activist/leftist/whatever enough?! I'm just ME! What's with this judgment?

  4. Stage 4. Mourning: How can anyone stand to be so cruel/ignorant/prejudiced? I'm a real person!

  5. Stage 5. Anger: HOW DARE YOU?!? We are valid, real people with feelings and needs!

  6. Stage 6. Peace: Wait...I am real, I have loved ones and others who accept me and are like me, and nothing the jackanapes do or say will make that different. (I call this the "It's not what you call me, it's what I answer to" stage.)


If you take no other thing away from reading this review, I hope it is that there is something out there in the world that can supporrt and guide those not satisfied with the heteronormative world's offerings towards a different, possibly more comfortable and complete, identity. If you know someone who's on that journey, if you might be yourself, or if you're just curious about what the hell all the fuss is about, read Author Ward's enjoyable, informative, and authoritative prose.

No one needs to feel alone. Not when Author Ward's here to show a new path.

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BI: Bisexual, Pansexual, Fluid, and Genderqueer Youth
RITCH C. SAVIN-WILLIAMS

NYU Press
$28.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: What bisexual youth can tell us about today’s gender and sexual identities

Despite the increasing visibility of LGBTQ people in American culture, our understanding of bisexuality—perhaps one of the least visible sexual orientations—remains superficial at best. Yet five times as many people identify as bisexual than as gay or lesbian, and, if we were to include the many bisexual people who remain hidden from sight, including those who simultaneously identify as pansexual, fluid, genderqueer, and no label, as much as 25 percent of the population is estimated to be bisexual.

In Bi, Ritch C. Savin-Williams brings bisexuality out of the shadows, particularly as Gen Z and millennial youth and young adults increasingly reject traditional sexual labels altogether. Drawing on interviews with bisexual youth from a range of racial, ethnic, and social class groups, he reveals to us how bisexuals define their own sexual orientation and experiences—in their own words. Savin-Williams shows how and why people might identify as bisexual as a result of their biology or upbringing; as a bridge or transition to something else; as a consequence of their curiosity; or for a range of other equally valid reasons.

Savin-Williams provides an important new understanding of bisexuality as an orientation, behavior, and identity. Bi shows us that bisexuality is seen and embraced as a valid sexual identity more than ever before, giving us timely and much-needed insight into the complex, fascinating experiences of bisexual youth themselves.


I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I'm not sure that the author is clear on some things that strongly impact the efficacy of this read. It seems, at some points, as though Author Savin-Williams is using "genderqueer" as a sexual orientation; at others, he clearly shows that he understands this (and nonbinary) are genders which might or might not impact another person's sexual interest in the person whose gender is expressed that way. Also, bisexuality is treated as a binary of sex, not in any way impacted by gender expression. I do not think this is the case, or at least it hasn't been in my own experience.

These are not small matters. But, in reading the case studies and interviews of young people who identify in many and various ways, these aren't issues on which they experience any doubt or confusion. I suppose this is understandable, as the author's prose isn't hugely dry or eye-wateringly dense; it is, nonetheless, presenting the author's understanding of the topic. That can get tangled in a reader's mind unless the very greatest possible care is taken to express distinctions with an absolute minimum of ambiguity. This editorial care felt inadequate to this reader, admittedly quite old and joyously binary. I might simply have missed something.

I asked for this DRC because I wanted a book to share with my grands. I was hoping, because it's focused on the youth of the twenty-first century, that it would be readable by those youth. It's not a great choice, I'm sad to say. I wouldn't give it to any of them, especially not my transmasc grandchild, because too often I felt Savin-Williams was dismissing the profiled person's self-definition by bringing all focus off gender and placing the emphasis on biological sex.

A completely-outside-the-author's-control cavil is that the DRC is a BEAR to navigate. I am entirely sure this is an issue with the vile, satanic PDF interfacing with my Kindle, but it required me to do a lot of fancy footwork to follow along as people were interviewed, or as points were made, and they happened to coincide with a page break. I'm not willing to ignore the issues but I've taken extra care to think about my rating of 3* of five very carefully. Am I blaming the story for the book's issues? Hence those three shiny stars when I started out with two.

All in all, I felt more disappointment due to my desired focus being unavailable in this project than I did with every other presentation issue. The author and/or publisher's title gave me to understand that all the identities listed in the subtitle would be more than touched on, and the groups mentioned would be the audience as well as the topic. I was incorrect in my assumption. The groups of young people were not, in my observation, treated with the respect they earned by taking part in the various studies. People, of all ages, are who they say they are; and lumping everyone from an enby/aro person to a cisqueer woman as "bisexual" did nothing for inclusion. It fostered confusion, and it did so avoidably.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

June 2022's Burgoine Reviews & Pearl Rule Reviews


Author 'Nathan Burgoine posted this simple, direct method of not getting paralyzed by the prospect of having to write reviews. The Three-Sentence Review is, as he notes, very helpful and also simple to achieve. I get completely unmanned at the idea of saying something trenchant about each book I read, when there often just isn't that much to say...now I can use this structure to say what I think is the most important idea I took away from the read and not try to dig for more.

Think about using it yourselves!

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Joseph and His Friend A Story of Pennsylvania by Bayard Taylor

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Joseph, a young man, marries a wealthy woman just as he is discovering an even more powerful love with his new friend Philip and must contend with the revelation of his wife's manipulative nature as well as his increasing feelings for Philip.

Joseph and His Friend has been deemed the "first gay novel" in America. It has also been noted for its enigmatic treatment of homosexuality. Roger Austen notes "In the nineteenth century, Bayard Taylor had written that the reader who did not feel 'cryptic forces' at play in Joseph and His Friend would hardly be interested in the external movement of his novel."

I PROCURED THIS BOOK FROM PROJECT GUTENBERG.

My Review
: I love the straight-people arguments about how "gay" things weren't really A Thing in historical time! Alexander and Hephaistion? Besties! Achilles and Patroclus? Companions! Naomi and Ruth? Dutiful daughter-in-law! They really don't mean that. They mean "y'all creepy little losers aren't real and if you try harder you'll be just like me" so, since we won't do that, it's easy to hate us guilt-free. (Lest we be in any doubt, "I accept you, just not the sins you're committing" is hateful, judgmental rejection, like the horrifying "I love you anyway" that good christians love to emit.)

This is the story of a man who marries a horrible, manipulative woman, figures out she's awful, and confronts her with a demand that she change. Instead, she has a hissy fit and dies. (Good riddance to bad rubbish.) The way he figures out she's bad news is the love of a good man. He is involved in a train wreck (literal this time) and is nursed back to health by Philip. The good, kind, caring, nurturing Philip delivers everything Joseph has thirsted for. Their strong loving bond gives Joseph the strength to face down all of Society as his beady-eyed, small-souled religious-nut community suspects he is the cause of his revolting wife's death.

As soon as Joseph leaves these awful, judgmental church-goers and spends some more time in The Wilderness, the first place he returns to is Philip. "Ooops," thought Bayard Taylor, "that won't do," (or it was said to him) and hey-presto Joseph is suddenly, without the slightest reason, in love with Philip's sister who has barely appeared before this. As kludges go, this one's pretty awkward but doesn't shock me. Especially revealing of the nature of it as kludge is the extended meditation Philip runs through where he laments the fact that Joseph will be "take{n} further from my heart"; he determines, though, that it's really all for the best and he'll be vicariously happy in their marriage. Note: he doesn't at any time think "now I'll go get me one of those marriage things" or think about how he's happy his sister has such a good man; he mourns his own loss and sets up a lifetime of pining for what she ghosted out from under his nose.

Why I kept going despite the very serious problems with this book is simple: the American nineteenth century wasn't all that tolerant of Others. We're racist now, but these folks had just fought a war five years before it came out to determine if chattel slavery was going to remain legal. The whole thing, just by existing, is a shock to the social system. The author acknowledges as much in his preface:
To those who prefer quiet pictures of life to startling incidents, the attempt to illustrate the development of character to the mysteries of an elaborate plot, and the presentation of men and women in their mixed strength and weakness to the painting of wholly virtuous ideals and wholly evil examples: who are as interested in seeing moral and intellectual forces at work in a simple country community as on a more conspicuous place of human action: who believe in the truth and tenderness of man's love for man, as of man's love for woman: who recognize the trouble which confused ideals of life and the lack of high and intellect culture bring upon a great portion of our country population,–to all such, no explanation of this volume is necessary. Others will not read it.

Borrow it from the library, download it for free. Not a book you'll want to re-read absent a real fascination with queerness in the nineteenth century.

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The Boystown Prequels: Two Nick Nowak Novellas by Marshall Thornton

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Lambda award-winning Boystown Mystery series follows the cases of former police officer turned private investigator Nick Nowak. Set in Chicago during the early 1980s, Nowak is haunted by his abrupt departure from the CPD and the end of his relationship with librarian Daniel Laverty. The Boystown Prequels includes:

Little Boy Dead
Former Chicago police officer turned private investigator, Nick Nowak is haunted by a traumatic break-up and his abrupt departure from the department after being gay-bashed. It's fall 1979 and Nick has just received his P.I. license but has no clients. Short on funds, he takes a temporary job as a driver for Film Fest Chicago. In a very short time, Nick deals with stalking fans, a crowd of protesters, and a critic’s stolen wallet that leads to murder.

Little Boy Afraid
It’s winter 1980, private investigator Nick Nowak gets one of his first jobs working for an openly-gay senate candidate. Allan Grimley has been receiving death threats, a lot of them, and it’s Nick’s job to keep him alive until the election. As he protects Grimley from increasing dangers, his friendship with bartender Ross deepens.

Both stories have been sold previously.

I GOT THESE STORIES AS AN AMAZON KINDLE PROMOTION.

My Review: An exercise in nostalgia. I was totally sucked in by the idea of something set at the end of the Carter era, the last gasp of good government in the USA before the vile plutocrats distracted the stupid with a religious revival meeting and the leftists with pointless internecine-fighting nonsense.

Nick Nowak doesn't care about that, he cares about rent and gas for his Duster:
...and a man in his bed who will go away in (ideally before) the morning. He's coping with the serious problem of post-Outing shunning, a Polish Catholic family of cops whose lives he's ruined by daring not to conform, a new career as a private investigator that means he intersects with them and their like-minded bigots a lot, and an empty place in his life where his boyfriend (who buggered right off rather than deal with him anymore) once was.

These novellas are quite sexually explicit, and deeply unsafe for straight readers. Younger readers (than I am, say under 50) won't necessarily feel comfortable with Vaseline and barebacking. The stories they're telling are to my taste...Nick will gladly ignore your power stance, or use it to aim a solid kick to your boys if you try to cow him...so it was a few hours pleasantly spent.

Get your very own here (non-affiliate Amazon link).

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The Lodger, That Summer by Levi Huxton

Rating: 3.5* of five, rounded up for asking better questions than one could expect.

FINALIST FOR THE 34th LAMMY AWARD—BEST LGBTQ EROTICA!

The Publisher Says: It’s a hot summer Down Under and everyone’s got sex on the mind.

Eighteen year-old James has had a tough year. Having lost his mum to cancer and fought through grief to finish high school, he’s now got secret desires to contend with.

It’s Christmas in Sydney, and he’s ready to cast his worries aside for the summer holidays, a time of poolside parties, bush walks and ocean swims. But who is the seductive young man who’s moved into the spare room?

In this steamy coming-of-age novel, James and the men around him discover transformative new desires with the power to up-end lives or, possibly, unlock a brighter future.

I GOT THIS STORY AS AN AMAZON KINDLE PROMOTION.

My Review: Definitely not straight people safe. We're well and truly into the erotica shelf of the shop, all of it making itself useful despite flinging revolting w-bombs everywhere.

If the Star Trek mantra, "infinite diversity in infinite combinations," is meaningful to you, this story will please and possibly surprise you. There are minor inconsistent details...ages...but honestly it's just not worth getting into a swivet about.

Pleasant diversion. Give it a whirl.

Get yours at Amazon (non-affiliate link) now!

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Who Killed Tom Thomson?: The Truth about the Murder of One of the 20th Century's Most Famous Artists by John Little

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Tom Thomson was Canada's Vincent van Gogh. He painted for a period of five years before meeting his untimely death in a remote wilderness lake in July 1917. He was buried in an unofficial grave close to the lake where his body was found. About eight hours after he was buried, the coroner arrived but never examined the body and ruled his death accidental due to drowning. A day and a half later, Thomson's family hired an undertaker to exhume the body and move it to the family plot about 100 miles away. This undertaker refused all help, and only worked at night.

In 1956, John Little's father and three other men, influenced by the story of an old park ranger who never believed Thomson's body was moved by the undertaker, dug up what was supposed to be the original, empty grave. To their surprise, the grave still contained a body, and the skull revealed a head wound that matched the same location noted by the men who pulled his corpse from the water in 1917. The finding sent shockwaves across the nation and began a mystery that continues to this day.

In Who Killed Tom Thomson? John Little continues the sixty-year relationship his family has had with Tom Thomson and his fate by teaming up with two high-ranking Ontario provincial police homicide detectives. For the first time, they provide a forensic scientific opinion as to how Thomson met his death, and where his body is buried. Little draws upon his father's research, plus recently released archival material, as well as his own thirty-year investigation. He and his colleagues prove that Thomson was murdered, and set forth two persons of interest who may have killed Tom Thomson.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Wondering who Tom Thomson was?
The Jack Pine, Winter 1916-1917

He was a founding member, if a posthumous one, of The Group of Seven Canadian artists. It is not too much to say that Thomson's untimely, and long mysterious, death was a major catalyst in the Group of Seven (then called "the Algonquin School") emerging from obscurity to claim a place in the world artistic establishment.

That does rather make solving the mystery surrounding Thomson's death problematic. Especially for the family, who (via eldest sibling George Thomson) visited the area where Tom's body was discovered and spoke to his contacts there; as well as the letters Tom had sent home, we can feel sure that George felt clear in his mind about what Tom's death involved. And he forcefully, from the day he got there to the day he died, shut down speculation about "what really happened." The Official Story, however, made not one whit of sense. The author, son of a man whose involvement in the case began accidentally almost forty years after Thomson's death, tells a thoroughly researched and forensically vetted story about the death that, had the family not refused to cooperate with a routine exhumation and DNA test, would've made the world's headline machine whir into life.

I think, having read this tendentious tome, that the author and his trained detectives and forensic experts are correct about the outlines of the case, and probably have the final solution covered in their several options as detailed in the book. So it seems like a safe bet that someone in Thomson's remaining family already knows what the truth is and doesn't want it told, OR doesn't want the mysterious cachet that adheres to Tom Thomson's name and thus his work (and their patrimony) to be even slightly dispelled.

A Kindle copy is only $2.99, cheap at twice that price. (non-affiliate Amazon link)

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My Perfect Cousin by Colin O'Sullivan

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Rural Ireland in the late 1980s and, stuck in a rut in a small unnamed village, are sixteen-year-old cousins Laura and Kevin. The close cousins and constant companions ache to abscond to somewhere bigger, better, more exciting, where they are free to do what they want to do, free to become who they really are.

But things are holding them back. As well as having to cope with family tragedies, the troubled, music-obsessed teens must also negotiate the tricky terrain of burgeoning sexuality, the pitfalls of adolescence, and issues of homosexuality that seem, confusingly, to impinge upon them.

And then there is Laura’s own serious affliction, epilepsy, which comes and goes when she least expects it. Only cousin Kevin knows how to handle this tricky situation, or handle her: with gentleness, with sympathy, and with maybe just a little too much in the way of love and affection.

The months and the spiraling family crises serve only to bring them closer together: but how close is too close?

And then there is the strange matter of the nearby pond: this small body of water keeps drawing them near. Laura is convinced that something lurks down there, but Kevin eschews, putting it all down to the psychological trauma she is going through. Are they prepared for whatever secrets might come bubbling to the surface, monsters real or imagined that could come rising from the depths?

Colin O’Sullivan returns to a familiar (and formative) Irish setting with this punchy novel that grows in pace page by page. 1980s references abound, not only with music giants of the time, Boy George, Madonna et al, but also the politics of Gorbachev and Reagan, literal and figurative walls that are about to be torn down and imminent societal changes. Although rooted in the past, this fraught and frantic work is startlingly relevant and makes us consider today’s current affairs.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review: CW: Homophobia, homophobic violence, family secrets

I don't think I've spent more than a few minutes since finishing this book, for the second time, wondering why Author O'Sullivan chose the vocabulary he did in telling the tale (several reviewers elsewhere have mentioned the archness or preciousness of it). I've spent *hours* wondering why Kevin and his, um, personality flaws occurred to him....

But second time that it is, this read was deeply offensive to me. When Kevin, its main character, was revealed as such a homophobe I lost connection to the narrative. I came to understand the reasons, but there will never be an excuse. Why, then, read it twice? I had squads of cousins. I never once, in my entire life, considered fucking one of them...not even trying! Here are Kevin and Laura doing the wild thing and they dare to be homophobic?! So I wanted to make sure I read the book for the first time, again (meaning after a good gap). Several years on, my outrage dimmed and my interest warmed up in this bitter, angry boy and this cagey, clever girl inside their deeply Verboten cocoon. I can definitely see that the vocabulary is a stylistic choice to enhance a mood, disseminate an atmosphere, and it works very well at that. I ended up liking the idea of the book while being really angered and not a little repulsed by several of its facets. Still...Art. Art gets to do what it must to make its point, and nothing that is not Art could evoke such visceral emotional responses in my tired old-man's soul.

The trade paper edition is $16.77 from Amazon. (non-affiliate Amazon link)

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Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son by Richie Jackson

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: In this poignant and timely love letter to his son, producer Richie Jackson reflects on his experiences as a gay man in America and the progress and setbacks of LGBTQ citizens over the past fifty years.

"My son is kind, responsible, and hardworking. He is ready for college. He is not ready to be a gay man living in America."

When Richie Jackson's eighteen-year-old son born through surrogacy came out to him, the successful theater, television, and film producer, now in his fifties, was compelled to reflect on his experiences and share his wisdom on life for LGBTQ Americans over the past half-century.

Gay Like Me is a celebration of gay identity and a sorrowful warning. Jackson looks back at his own progress and growth as a gay man coming of age through decades of political and cultural change. We've come a long way since Stonewall, he marvels: discrimination is now outlawed in most states, gay men and women can marry, and drugs can protect against AIDS and mitigate its effects.

Jackson's son lives in a newly liberated America. Yet nothing can be taken for granted. Bigotry and hatred still exist, nurtured by a president whose divisive, manipulative language exacerbates fear of "The Other," drawing support and votes for excluding minorities and anyone who can be labelled "an outsider." A newly constituted Supreme Court with a conservative tilt could revoke laws and turn the clock back years. Gay identity can be worn with pride, but gay citizens cannot be complacent Jackson warns; they must always be vigilant that their gains are fragile.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates did in Between the World and Me, Jackson offers a response to our anxious and uncertain times. An intimate, personal exploration of our most troubling questions and profound concerns—about issues such as human rights, equality, justice—Gay Like Me is a book for all who care about tolerance, diversity, and social progress. Angry, proud, fierce, tender, it is powerful letter of love from a father to a son that holds lasting insight for us all.

I GOT THIS BOOK AS AN AMAZON KINDLE PROMOTION.

My Review: I'm afraid this isn't my kindest review.

Your cotton is down, Miss Richie. A wealthy white man using WEB DuBois quotes to bring up points in the QUILTBAG struggle needs to cross a high bar of interrogating his privilege, acknowledging his appropriation and justifying it, and not speaking to the son he conceived through surrogacy and raised in the world where that simply *is* as though that is the world his son will inherit. Much has changed since Stonewall. But much that has changed seems not to have made a mark on the author...or the publisher. Between the World and Me does not inhabit the same ZIP code as this book, any more than the authors do.

Now for the parts I can relate to, and acknowledge as positive: This is a good and solid rumination on the trajectory of the movement for 2SLGBTQIA+ to be fully included in the politics and culture of this country. I'm glad this gay dad is writing to his gay son about his life, and his work to make the world more inclusive. I simply wish that he had been more aware of what did not get dome and who was not included, and asked his son to advance the work already done. Sadly it was left as "this is your dad" and that, in the 2020s, is just not enough.

NOW $1.99 ON KINDLE. (non-affiliate Amazon link)

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Madder: A Memoir in Weeds by Marco Wilkinson

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Madder, matter, mater—a weed, a state of mind, a material, a meaning, a mother. Poet and horticulturist Marco Wilkinson searches for the roots of myths and memories among plant families and family trees.

"My life, these weeds." Marco Wilkinson's intimate vignettes of intergenerational migration, queer sexuality, and willful forgetting use the language of plants as both structure and metaphor—particularly weeds: invisible yet ubiquitous, unwanted yet abundant, out-of-place yet flourishing. Madder combines meditations on nature with memories of Wilkinson's Rhode Island childhood and glimpses of his maternal family's life in Uruguay. The son of a fierce immigrant mother who tried to erase his absent father from their lives, Wilkinson investigates his heritage with a mixture of anger and empathy as he wrestles with the ambiguity of the past. Using a verdant iconography rich with wordplay and symbolism, Wilkinson offers a mesmerizing portrait of finding belonging in an uprooted world.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: It's one of the wonderful things about reading memoirs that, as we voyeuristically peer into the writer's personal life, we also learn, experience anew or for the first time, that special glory of Life that Author Wilkinson describes thus: "Finally the freedom of being, not being seen." It's a genuine pleasure that the genre has in greater abundance than most all the books I read in so many other genres. Marco has led a really surprising life, son of a single Uruguayan mother whose character clearly formed his observant, detail-oriented self as well as the art he can't help but produce.

This is a seriously poetic tale of being queer (as we now say) among people who aren't supportive of you. This is a sad tale of being sure there's something wrong with the way the world treats you, the way it talks about you, and not being in touch with any strand of culture that supports the sense you have of yourself. This is the reason the hate-filled rejecters of life's Others want to remove the books and censor the art that includes people they don't like. If you're not one of those people, and—importantly—if you like poetry and/or poetical prose, read this wonderful story of a man coming to accept and shape his sense of himself via the metaphorical garden with its weeds that he's built of and for himself. It's a lovely trip.

For only $14.05, you can follow that non-affiliate link to Amazon for your Kindle version.

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Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot by Jonathan Alexander

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: An archive of personal trauma that addresses how a culture still toxic to queer people can reshape a body

In the summer of 2019, Jonathan Alexander had a minor stroke, what his doctors called an "eye stroke." A small bit of cholesterol came loose from a vein in his neck and instead of shooting into his brain and causing damage, it lodged itself in a branch artery of his retina, resulting in a permanent blindspot in his right eye. In Stroke Book, Alexander recounts both the immediate aftermath of his health crisis, which marked deeper health concerns, as well as his experiences as a queer person subject to medical intervention.

A pressure that the queer ill contend with is feeling at fault for their condition, of having somehow chosen illness as punishment for their queerness, however subconsciously. Queer people often experience psychic and somatic pressures that not only decrease their overall quality of life but can also lead to shorter lifespans. Emerging out of a medical emergency and a need to think and feel that crisis through the author's sexuality, changing sense of dis/ability, and experience of time, Stroke Book invites readers on a personal journey of facing a health crisis while trying to understand how one's sexual identity affects and is affected by that crisis. Pieceing and stitching together his experience in a queered diary form, Alexander's lyrical prose documents his ongoing, unfolding experience in the aftermath of the stroke. Through the fracturing of his text, which almost mirrors his fractured sight post-stroke, the author grapples with his shifted experience of time, weaving in and out, while he tracks the aftermath of what he comes to call his "incident" and meditates on how a history of homophobic encounters can manifest in embodied forms.

The book situates itself within a larger queer tradition of writing—first, about the body, then about the body unbecoming, and then, yet further, about the body ongoing, even in the shadow of death. Stroke Book also documents the complexities of critique and imagination while holding open a space for dreaming, pleasure, intimacy, and the unexpected.

I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Author Alexander does a lot of thinking. It is all in his prose.
I found myself thinking beyond {others}'s formal approach to the even more particularly queer nature of how I understood my stroke, of how I had been invited by a homophobic culture to think and feel about my body. A pressure that the queer ill contend with is feeling at fault for their condition, of having somehow chosen illness as punishment for their queerness, however subconsciously.

His world includes a husband, Mack, and a bunch of doctors who see him at need. So yes...he's white male privilege on legs. He's loved, employed, and creatively gifted (even works with my dote Michelle Latiolais!); he's able to get a publishing deal, so he's well connected.

None of that matters to cholesterol hanging onto the walls of this one artery, though, and when it takes off and lands in a new place that leaves him partially blind (and him with amblyopia already! PLUS it's his dominant eye that has the stroke!) He lands in that weird place called "chronic illness." And he'll never leave it. As a Queer man, that's a bad, grim journey...so many, many side-paths and so many losses and so much rage against the medical establishment that excuses its homophobia as "concern for patient privacy". But mostly, the fact is, this is a new resident in a community he's circled for decades, since AIDS through some "calculus of divine justice" has been seen as guilty without trial or concern for truth of Deserving It. Whatever bad thing "It" is, the gay men of the world Deserve It.

Not true; never was true; but there it is, like a rock in your panna cotta. Author Alexander asks, as he copes with his new situation as well as his mother's decline into old age, "is this what aging is like?" And answers himself, "Too soon. Always too soon." Amen, Soul Sibling. A-bloody-men!

Buy your hardcover at Fordham University Press's website for $19.95. The Kindle edition is half that price, but the art's so pretty on paper....


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This space is dedicated to Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50, or "the Pearl Rule" as I've always called it. After realizing five times in December 2021 alone that I'd already Pearl-Ruled a book I picked up on a whim, I realized how close my Half-heimer's is getting to the full-on article. Hence my decision to track my Pearls!

As she says:
People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.

So this space will be each month's listing of Pearl-Ruled books. Earlier Pearl-Rule posts:

JUNE 2022's PEARL-RULES

It doesn't look like there will be a Pearl-Ruled book...it's the 26th and one hasn't shown up yet, which is *weird* but also quite lovely.

MAY 2022's BURGOINES ARE HERE.

APRIL 2022's BURGOINES ARE HERE.

MARCH 2022's BURGOINES AREN'T.

FEBRUARY 2022's BURGOINES ARE HERE.

JANUARY 2022's BURGOINES ARE HERE.

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