Last vacation of the year

IMG_0754Once again, I leave Out in Print in Duncan’s capable hands so you may marvel as his Chocolate Lab awesomeness while I am at a writer’s retreat at the Easton Mountain Center in upstate New York. Out In Print will return on 8/11 with a review of Christopher DiRaddo’s The Geography of Pluto. Until then, feel free to leave comments lauding our boy for capturing and chewing the Bad Bone.

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Finding the Grain – Wynn Malone (Bywater Books)

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Have you ever not trusted the ending of a book? Not to say that it wasn’t credible or not in keeping with the characters as drawn, but rather the opposite. You feel you know the characters so well that as the happy ending washes over you, it’s all you can do not to scream at the half-page that ends the book, No! Don’t do it! She’ll fuck you over again!!!” That’s what I experienced with Wynn Malone’s richly detailed and absolutely sumptuous debut novel, Finding the Grain.

Orphaned by a tornado a month before her high school graduation, Augusta “Blue” Riley graduates from high school and plans for college with the help of her aunt. But while at university, Blue meets and falls in love with sorority girl Grace Lancaster. Parental pressures, however, puts the screws to their relationship and Grace bails, leaving Blue adrift. Twenty years on, after hopping from town to town, job to job, and bed to bed, Blue finally rediscovers herself and finds a career that makes her happy–building furniture. She settles down and opens up a shop, not quite over Grace but determined to put the past behind her. Until Grace shows up again. Will they fulfill their destinies? You have to wait to the last page to find out.

Well, this is a romance after all, and one of the unbreakable laws of the genre is the Happy Ever After ending. The joy is in the journey, and there’s much joy to be found here. Malone’s greatest strength is her characters. Both Blue and Grace are wonderfully drawn, absolutely believable, and frustratingly lifelike. I say frustrating because they do exactly what real people do instead of characters in books. And just when you think you have their relationship figured out, Malone throws you another curve. But such curves she throws–soft, low, and deadly.

But as true to life and Blue and Grace are, Malone shows her facility with character in other ways. Preacher, the man who mentors Blue in the art of wood carving, is a patient, wise, and talented older black man who could have easily tipped over into an offensive (or worse yet, bland) caricature. Morgan Freeman’s entire career rests on parts like this. We know just how he’ll react to her being a lesbian, how he encourages her talent, how he waits for her to prove herself, and how he comes to love Blue in his own gruff way. However, Malone injects so much detail and so much humanity into Preacher, he transcends the limitations of that stock character and lifts right off the page. Morgan Freeman should be so lucky.

But we are lucky indeed to have the fruits of Wynn Malone’s labors available. Finding the Grain is a terrific read that’s as warm, comforting, and sturdy as a well-carved piece of wood. And I’ll bet you scream at the last half-page too.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Little Reef and Other Stories – Michael Carroll (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press)

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By Guest Reviewer Felice Picano

It used to be, way back in the twentieth century, that a literary author would make a name by first publishing a small collection of short stories, most of them appearing in those tiny circulation quarterlies that dotted the landscape, attached to every Liberal Arts College in the Land. Sometimes, a slender volume of verse would appear first. Some fifty people would review the first book, maybe thirty of them having read it, and unless it was bad, the author was on the way up. That was before the current Age of Over-Information that we (so ambiguously) enjoy. Nowadays a confessional memoir or slam-bang novel is almost de rigeur for that path: something big, bad, and, as Jean Cocteau said, something to astonish us.

So it’s kinda cute that author Michael Carroll starts off his own literary career with a collection of stories, and that a handful of them, from the first half of the book actually, were printed in some of those quarterlies either still generously endowed or barely holding on by their fingernails. This collection is in two parts: “After Dallas,” and “After Memphis,” and these tales are not divided by place or time as much as they are by ambition, scope, style and yes, even by content.

The early six stories are almost what any self respecting Brooklyn, New York authoress might write and savor. They’re a little autobiographical, a little earnest, a little sly and funny, and filled with the required shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude and put-on jaded and/or over-medicated aura that today passes for contemporary fiction. But they’re also well-written, easy to take, sharply observed, and most of the characters–including the narrators–get little sympathy and even take a few well rendered beatings on several levels simultaneously. To our pleasure, I have to admit. Especially the two young male/female couples in “The Biographers” and the crusty old gent, widower of the dead writer they’re nattering on about. The one piece that breaks the mold and ends up being quite moving is “Werewolf,” about a straight childhood friend, and the gay male narrator’s relationship with him over the years. It’s a carefully composed piece, with not a comma out of place and, therefore, an utterly credible and creditable narration.

Then we arrive at Part Two, and it’s altogether something different. Knowing Michael a little and his partner a great deal better (or at least longer) this reviewer couldn’t help but think the aging author being cared for by the callow narrator of the five later, longer  pieces are strongly based on them; and so a kind of queasiness or giddiness set in, making  this a post Robert Gluck meta-fiction in which who knows what to believe, really. Yet these are by far the more interesting set of fictions: first, because of the easy going, almost rambling style which fingers the reader as surely as did Coleridge telling about that crazed sailor, and second,because you probably think you know who those major and minor characters –the latter mostly sketched in– are or can shrewdly guess who they might be, narrowing it down to one or two. And third because it seems so intimate and confiding, just like well, Pip or Holden or Nick Carraway, that you’re seduced pretty thoroughly.

Seduced but not lobotomized. Is this a memoir in the making? A fake memoir? A novel in several pieces–it takes up three-quarters f the entire volume? Or what exactly? And what story is being told here? That’s often as uncertain as the location of Schrodinger’s cat. Take “Avenging Angel“ as an example. The story begins in one of those standard-as-possible writers’ work/vacation New England towns (he even references Stephen King!) in great, novelistic detail, and suddenly without any transition I’m aware of, switches to Faith Fox, a long time friend of the narrator’s. From there on it moves back and forth between his current life and her life which he sees in enormous, if momentary, chunks of gory detail whenever she reappears. Anyone who’s lived a few decades will recognize this woman–trendoid to the max–she comes in different shapes, sizes and flavors, and to my mind personifies what we mean when we speak of a zombie. But then we’re knocked back into the story with the older writer, who has had a debilitating stroke and who is increasingly presented as a Baron de Charlus type: “The old libertine can barely move” he calls out, not able to get out of the car by himself. “That’s hilarious,” I muttered, though how I cared for him. “Here, grab my hand.”

Is that irony? Is that affection twisted somehow? What gives? His and the narrator’s story takes place alongside that of Faith as though they were meant to play off each other, or make each other resonate, but that didn’t happen for this reviewer. One area is simply more interesting than the other, and because any emotion possible is held over the fire so long, it’s unclear what we are supposed to feel and for whom exactly.

But … having written that, any story or stories that make me actually think about them  that much are certainly worth my time. And all of these stories are. I think Carroll has opened out a space if not yet a landscape for himself, and he has done so with believable dialogue, intriguing characters, and situations that feel free to promise future benefits if not exactly future revelations. Give it a try.

© 2014 Felice Picano

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Queerly Beloved: A Love Story Across Genders – Diane and Jacob Anderson-Minshall (Bold Strokes Books)

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First an obituary, then a review. Don’t worry, they’re connected.

While I was at Saints and Sinners this year, I learned of the death of my good friend Matt Kailey. Writer, teacher, lecturer, and trans activist, Matt represented much to many people. I was lucky enough to work with him at Out Front Colorado where he was managing editor, and I was even luckier to be invited to join a writer’s critique group he was in. I learned some valuable lessons over pizzas and soft drinks in Matt’s small Capitol Hill apartment in Denver with our friends Peter Clarke, Drew Wilson, Chris Kenry, John Brandstetter, and the late Sean Wolfe among others. Matt was also directly responsible for my first publication and, thus, my entry into gay literature. He was an incredibly unselfish individual who would answer nearly any question about his transition, no matter how boorish, as long as it was well-intentioned. He influenced an enormous number of people through his personal appearances and his autobiography, Just Add Hormones. One of those people Matt reached was Jacob Anderson-Minshall, then doing research preparatory to his own transition. Matt, however, was single. Jacob (then Suzy) was already in a lesbian relationship when he began his process. The story of how Jacob and his wife, Diane, coped with that decision and its aftermath forms the basis for their latest book, Queerly Beloved.

Told in both Diane and Jacob’s voices, their experiences are distinct as well as melded. Diane has her problems with the transition (one of which is her position in the community as a lesbian activist and journalist), and Jacob has his. That they are both able to step back and understand each other’s issues is a testament to their willingness to be together. Queerly Beloved, then,  is less a story about Jacob’s transition than it is a tribute to commitment and prolonging a lifelong relationship despite its permutations.

Jacob’s sections do, indeed, deal with his transition, but not so much as you might suppose. Again, he takes a broader view of how he affects and is affected by others during this period. Looking to find out which set of genitalia he has? Look somewhere else. Jacob is detailed where he needs to be and knows how to write lines which can be read between. Diane’s chapters are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but more often she uses her subtle wit and keen observation to make her point. But as with most barbs, their sharpness hides her vulnerability.

Both Diane and Jacob bravely expose parts of themselves and their relationship, but at some point they stop and close the curtain. And rightly so. Putting this much of your life and experience out there for judgment requires both personal and artistic courage, and each author must determine where to draw the line in the sand. I wonder if or how this story would have been different had Diane and Jacob chosen to tell it through fictional characters. Perhaps it would have been too voyeuristic. In the end, they made the right choice. What’s in Queerly Beloved is both frank and informative, as readable as it is important.

And to the authors, I apologize for pairing your review with an obituary–worse, an obituary with another book title in it. However, Matt Kailey’s Just Add Hormones (original title: Tranifesto) is a wonderful book that also mines some of the same territory regarding the joys and difficulties of transitioning. I know it was not intended as Matt’s final word on the subject, and Queerly Beloved adds to and enriches what he’s done. Our stories create community. And the more stories we hear, the more we understand where everyone fits in.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Teaching the Cat to Sit: A Memoir – Michelle Theall (Gallery Books)

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By Guest Reviewer David Pratt

Here in the ever-so-sophisticated northeast, if a gay person speaks of their love for the Catholic Church, mimosas hang suspended a moment over brioche French toast with artisanal lingonberry syrup before someone says, “You’re, like, joking, right?” Followed by, “I mean, you are joking, right?” Peggy Noonan once began a Sunday editorial by suggesting the reader was lazily enjoying brunch as they read. Noonan’s editor reminded her that, in most places of the United States, on Sunday morning, people were in church.

They still are. And Michelle Theall is one of them.

At first, the message of Theall’s memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit, seems to be: hey, look, us gay gals are just like you. The book seems written less for Theall’s queer sisters and brothers than for her straight neighbors in Colorado and the church folk she grew up with in Texas. See—I have a beautiful home, just like you. A wife and son, just like you. Just like a real person. We have our troubles, but get a load of the flagstones in the garden and the new flooring in the family room. Gradually, though, as Theall alternates between the Texas past and the Colorado present, the picture unravels. Let me make this clear: Theall herself is the one who unravels it.

As a kid, Theall suffered in a strict Catholic household with a raging, controlling, but strangely inert mother and an obsequious father. She was molested by a neighbor. She was harassed at school, and the harassment followed her home, a home where the word “lesbian” was unspeakable, yea, unthinkable, yea, inconceivable. Meanwhile, in the present, the author suffers from multiple sclerosis and visits and calls from that same mother, who all but ignores her daughter’s partner, Jill, and who still believes that an offense against the Catholic Church is the greatest offense there can be (except for offenses against motherhood, her own in particular).

Then, after a few chapters, something else unravels. Our patience. “Why doesn’t she tell the Church to fuck off?” rolls easily off non-Catholic tongues, especially in urbane gayborhoods. We find it similarly easy to say, “Just don’t invite your mother anymore.” “Tell her to fuck off, too.” But Theall is teaching cats to sit. We are the cats. Cool and brusque and independent, we do not want to put up with Theall’s agonizing. We will sit when we want to. But to Theall’s great credit, she gets us to sit and listen to a story of how the past is never past, how it is never easily cut loose, and how it should not be cut loose. For all the baggage the past drags behind it, we must welcome it anyway through the door of our fabulously appointed Boulder home. In the end, we have little choice.

Not that Theall doesn’t push back against family and church. Teaching is not a tale of wholesale rejection, but it is not a tale of capitulation, either. It is the story of a struggle—an ongoing one that many of us don’t or don’t have to undertake. But Theall and her partner have a child, so they must deal, to take just one example, with school. Catholic school. A Catholic school not “comfortable” having a student whose parents’ relationship goes against the church. Eventually the women remove their son from this school, but it takes much deliberation, much swallowing of anger, and many attempts to educate a priest who the reader can tell right off is not educable. Still, Theall undertakes the process.

A more difficult process is dealing with and educating Theall’s mother. Walking away from a school or a church may be difficult, but cutting off family, though some gay folk claim to do it blithely and confidently, is wrenching for a married woman with a child. Theall throws herself into the breach, supported by her partner, and gains small victories. But this is not a Lifetime special. Mom is not going to suddenly melt. She is a creature of the Catholic Church right to the bitter(sweet) end. She is another cat who must be taught to sit. Our impulse to tell Theall to toss Mom out must be taught to sit. Everybody, just please sit! Theall tells us. Sit and attend a story of women, of women who are not going to change as decisively as a male reader in particular might wish, who are going to take three steps forward, then two back, who are going to hang on fiercely to what they love, whether the reader understands why they love it or not, who will not break with the past in a way that gives a reader a cheap thrill, but who will work hard to integrate past and present.

If you are tired of hearing that it’s all about process and baby steps, maybe this is not the book for you. According to Michelle Theall, mess and contradiction and process are here to say. They are all that is. The same might be said of family and faith. No jokes this time. You might as well surrender. And engage.

Michelle Theall has written a fine manual for helping you do so.

© 2014 David Pratt

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Best Gay Romance 2014 – Timothy J. Lambert and R.D. Cochrane, eds.

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By Guest Reviewer Gavin Atlas

I tend to shy from universal absolutes like “every fan of gay romance will love this anthology,” but hold on a moment while I ponder that.…Still thinking…Right. I’ve got nothing. Ergo, yes, I think every gay romance fan will want to add this to his or her TBR list.

I discovered some new favorite authors and found new facets to authors whose work I’ve enjoyed before. One complaint often lodged against romance anthologies is how each piece resembles the last. Not here, and that nice bonus is accentuated by skilled editorial flow.

The opening story is charming and light. “Strange Propositions” by Eric Gober lives up to its name. With relationship scenarios such as “May I invite you to a movie that I won’t be going to myself?” and “Would you like to go to a protest dressed as a chicken?” Gober has created a tale that will make readers smile while showing the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone.

Speaking of leaving behind what’s comfortable, sometimes the way to risk the utmost vulnerability is to offer a long overdue, heartfelt apology followed by a stammered appeal for a second chance. The job Rob Byrnes does showing the complexity of regret, apprehension, and longing in “Carver Comes Home” is remarkably moving and vivid to the point of being cinematic.

Description is again an incredible strength in “Sight” by Jordan Taylor. Here, the immense, hollow loss that is almost certainly experienced by anyone who has gone blind is tempered by a loving partner’s exceptional ability to verbally paint a picture.

Jameson Currier’s “My Adventures with Tom Sawyer” was another story written so beautifully, I kept thinking “I hope someone sends this to the O’Henry Prize anthology.” The intricate details were phenomenal and the overarching theme—allowing yourself the bliss of the present instead of clouding the moment with the disappointment that it won’t last forever—felt both touching and significant.

Thanks to the story “Hello Aloha” in Foolish Hearts and “Dandelions” in this volume, I’m now a fan of Tony Calvert. If ever a fictional character needed a reality show, it is the busybody mother of Calvert’s main character, Jim. The combination of quirky humor, homespun “wisdom,” and the protagonist’s introspection make this story a joy.

With “True in my Fashion” by Paul Brownsey, I’ve discovered another new favorite writer. Brownsey masterfully shows his character meticulously building and trapping himself in his own web of adorable neurosis. We learn here that sometimes a person’s flaws are what make him most endearing. That and how the main character tries to cover up those flaws are what make “True in My Fashion” one of the most charming stories I’ve read.

Each story deserves its own paragraph, but the equivalent of the Academy Award Orchestra is telling me to wrap it up.  However, I need to mention the smile-inducing characters and adorable dogs from Shawn Anniston and Alex Jeffers, the distilled essence of companionship from Kevin Langson and Georgina Li, new definitions of family and acceptance from Felice Picano and Lewis DeSimone, delightful moments captured in vignettes by James Booth and N.S. Benarek, and the beauty of seeing a long time love with brand new adoration from David Puterbaugh.

The editors, in their commentary, bring up concepts that can make romance work. First, likable protagonists who go out on a limb, taking risks that could leave them crushed. Second, likable “contagonists” or objects of affection readers will know are worthy of that risk. Third, devotion, understanding, or longing that makes the reader understand, on a gut level, that this is right—these guys want more than anything to spend their lifetimes making each other smile. Will you find those elements here in spades? Yes, yes, and yes.

© 2014 Gavin Atlas

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With: New Gay Fiction – Jameson Currier, ed. (Chelsea Station Editions)

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By Guest Reviewer Lloyd A. Meeker

With: New Gay Fiction, edited by Jameson Currier and published by Chelsea Station Editions is a pleasure not to be missed.

As the foreword states, “These stories portray relationships with men: gay men with our friends, lovers, partners, husbands, dates, tricks, boyfriends, hustlers, idols, teachers, mentors, fathers, brothers, family, teams, co-workers, relatives and strangers.”

This is an anthology of sixteen beautifully written short stories from authors with diverse and compelling voices, voices you likely already know and respect. More than that, With is the relatively rare anthology that is emotionally and intellectually more than the sum of its parts. Each story shines a unique light on relationships with humor, depression, grief, adoration, kindness, pride and fear.

How can kindness from an idolized swimming teacher change a boy’s life forever? Why would a man grieving the loss of his partner steal an infant from a shopping mall at Christmas time? How can friendship be witness to rudderless self-indulgence? These and other story questions help make up the rich weave of the anthology, different ways of being with.

From the first story, of a grad student and a hustler who doesn’t know how to make his life better to the last, a triumphant ramble delivered in Jack Fritscher’s signature beat-poet cadences and strewn with period song titles which sort of relate but sound so cool when the line is read aloud, a story of two men proudly together almost fifty years — this collection’s skilled authors bring to focus some quality or insight about relationship that is worth thinking about longer than it takes to read the story. Especially impactful for me was the life-in-reverse-motion of David Pratt’s “What is Real,” a stunning way to experience the grief of a man lost without his dead partner.

Kudos to Jameson Currier for arriving at such an intellectually and emotionally flexible, powerful theme, and kudos to each author for adding his unique and polished facet to the exploration. After finishing With, I found myself in that reflective, inspired, satisfied space that is a gift of every good book. I think you’ll have the same experience.

© 2014 Lloyd A. Meeker

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