If I Remember Him – Louis Flint Ceci (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

Readers of Louis Flint Ceci’s first novel, Comfort Me, which focuses on the story of three high school friends growing up in small-town Croy, Oklahoma, will recognize many of the characters in his latest novel If I Remember Him. Although set fifteen years before the action of Comfort Me, during the summer of 1952, the actual action of If I Remember Him begins seventeen years before that, with the aftermath of a weather event so legendary, it has more than one name: The TriCounty Twister, the Cyclone of ’35, the Wild Horse Tornado, an example of what the indigenous Chicksaw call “Crazy Woman Weather.” Such a weather event nearly wiped Croy off the map: many families were wiped out, and plenty of others lost all they had; Lerner Philip Alquist, the town’s wealthiest citizen, lost his beloved wife Ada.  Overwhelmed by grief, and now devoid of any human warmth or feeling, Alquist manages to manipulate the City Council into approving the plans for a library as a memorial for his dead wife. Progress is slow as the city rebuilds, so it is only after a Depression, World War, and another war before the building can finally be dedicated. The last piece, the crowning touch, is a sculpture by Sunny Sohi, a final homage to Ada.

Into all the small-town drama enters an outsider: Andy Simms, the new music director at the Mt. Hermon Bible Church. Earnest, college-educated, and full of zeal, he is eager to succeed at his first musical ministry. But despite his best attempts at building bridges among the different communities of Croy, he only exacerbates the not-so-thinly-veiled bigotry barely hidden beneath the surface: the racism, religious dogmatism (and, when he takes up with Sohi, the sexual intolerance) all erupt, with lasting effects on all of the inhabitants of Croy.

Croy, ostensibly a small town, is an eclectic mix of White, Negro, and Indian—both American Indian, and Indian Indian. Not that Croy is a melting pot, by any means; rather it seems to be a mosaic, with its tiles carefully organized by color. Croy mirrors its creator, who demonstrates a wide-ranging interest in numerous subjects, many of which crop up throughout this novel: religion, poetry, music, even mathematics. (How often has the Fibonacci series been sited during a City Council meeting, really? And yet, within the context of the story, it works.) Far from depicting his characters as uneducated hicks, Ceci has done a stellar job of creating his characters, all with fully developed histories and interconnections (so typical of any small town). Ceci really shines as a writer when his characters grapple with matters of faith, having them speak with heart-felt eloquence. (And can I just say that I don’t think that I have ever read a more beautiful sexual communion between two men? There, I’ve said it.)

Prior visitors to Croy of course, will already have a sense of how the conflicts between the clashing personalities will play out; and even astute first-time readers of Ceci will know that, in 1950’s small-town mid-America, this story surely will not, cannot, end well. To his credit, Ceci does not shrink from depicting the virulence of bigotry and the toll it exacts on both its victims and perpetrators; virulence that extends years beyond the events retold here. And yet Ceci manages to inject some hope for the citizens of Croy, hope that might not come to fruition until Comfort Me, or even until the forthcoming Jacob’s Ladder.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Fishwives – Sally Bellerose (Bywater Books)

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Sally Bellerose made my cry, but I forgive her. It’s been almost ten years since she did it to me with The Girls Club, so I figure we’re overdue. This time, however, mortality and loss seem to be uppermost in both our minds. Despite this solemnity, her latest novel, Fishwives, also contains joy, compassion, and history—but above all, it celebrates the endurance of love.

Regina and Jackie need to get rid of their old, dead Christmas tree, but as they are eighty-nine and ninety years old, respectively, said task is more difficult than usual. They enlist the help of some neighborhood kids, tie the thing to the roof of their car, and take it to the dump. Yes, that’s the plot—interspersed with flashbacks that send us as far back as how they met in 1955, illustrating the highs and lows of their life together.

The simplicity of the plot is in direct contrast to the complexity of the characters, and Bellerose reaches down deep to come up with two very complicated women. What I loved most about Regina and Jackie—outside of their age, which I’ll get to in a minute—is their extraordinary ordinariness. They scrape by, financially and emotionally. Their health is in danger. They have had trouble in their relationship as Jackie has an eye for the ladies. Yet the same experiences that have left them with no security or stability for their old age have provided them with a wealth of memories and friends. Moreover, they ponder whether or not the tradeoff has been worthwhile, a question that becomes more salient to me as I get older myself.

You don’t often see eighty-nine and ninety-year-olds as main characters, and when you do, they are usually only that age when they are narratively framing the story of a younger version of themselves. Bellerose does indeed use that device as she flashes back to various points in their lives, but I never felt as if Regina and Jackie’s elderly present was given short shrift for their youthful past. I haven’t read anything as age-empowering since Matt Kailey’s virtually unheard-of story of love in a nursing home, Our Day Will Come, by now out of print but well worth searching out used.

Other characters? Sure, there are other characters; chiefly Regina’s sister Lynn and the neighborhood kids who look after the ladies, not to mention the friends and lovers who populate many of the flashbacks, but truth be told, those were secondary for me. Regina and Jackie are the stars of this show, and when the inevitable happens (which is as close to a spoiler as I’m going to get), you will be devastated even though you see it coming a mile away.

Fishwives is a wonderful story with an incredible pair of fully realized and totally successful main characters you’ll remember long after you’ve finished the book. And if you get the urge to chastise the author for such a long wait between books, don’t. Stories as rich as this aren’t written in a year. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Unbalanced Mercy – J. Warren (Queer Space/Rebel Satori Press

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I have no desire to step in the fanfic argument because it matters not a whit to me where writers come from or how they cut their authorial teeth. I say this so no one will think I’m insulting the compulsively readable Unbalanced Mercy when I tell you its beginning reminded me of X-Files fanfic except Scully is the agent in charge instead of Mulder. What follows is an exciting tale of amateur magicians in over their heads, trying to keep a dangerous entity from breaking through to our world, aided by our two federal agents, a gay bookseller, and a magician out for revenge.

Special Agent Paul Lowe and Special Agent Miranda Burton are investigating The Order, a group of amateur magicians making magical objects. However, Delores Vandecamp, a rogue Order member, has stolen one of the artifacts, gone on a killing spree, and opened up a dark portal. Lowe and Burton will have to pull out all the stops to find and defeat Delores, but they have bookseller Derek Goldman and firebrand Stacey Durand, who has already battled Delores once and seen her mentor killed, along with a few others to try to stop her.

Lowe and Burton have the first part of the book as they begin their investigation and Lowe settles into his new role, so we don’t meet Goldman and Durand until about seventy pages in. The focus then changes from a police procedural to something a bit more character driven. Both Goldman and Durand are great characters: a middle-aged Jewish, bi-racial, cis gay man and a homeless queer teen who helps out at the bookstore while she seeks revenge. And they have a more interesting relationship than the agents do, so it’s no surprise that they carry the book once they appear. Not that the agents are uninteresting or useless. They set up most of the plot elements and introduce us to characters we’ll see again later, but theirs is a working relationship.

 Warren also knows his way around an action scene. He renders both skirmishes and battles with exacting detail, but you always know where the fighters are and what they’re doing. His prose is concise but never skimpy, and his pacing is flawless. He takes advantage of the lulls and valleys to build character, so that when it’s time to fight, the reader is fully invested in the outcome.

Unbalanced Mercy is a corker of a supernatural police thriller, and if that’s your thing, this will be enough to make you join the Malleus Maleficarum.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Big Tow: An Unlikely Romance – Ann McMan (Bywater Books)

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Nothing cements the bonds of a new relationship like a criminal endeavor, not that I have any personal experience with that particular dating strategy. It does, however, seem to work for the protagonists of Ann McMan’s latest romantic comedy adventure, The Big Tow. Being a fan of the masterfully titled Beowulf for Cretins, I was looking forward to this read, and I wasn’t disappointed.

As a low level attorney in a high-powered firm, Vera “Nick” Nicholson has many onerous duties for clients, including being asked to find a luxury car belonging to one of their clients without benefit of law enforcement. She finds Fast Eddie and The National Recovery Bureau and, with their assistance, recovers the car. She also finds she has a taste for repo work. When the law firm fires her, she goes to work for Fast Eddie, who pairs her with Frances “Frankie” Stohler, a third grade teacher supplementing her income. Their capers soon turn into much more, and Nick and Frankie find themselves in love. And in lots of trouble—because the cars they thought they were repossessing, they were stealing.

Much of my reading lately has been Important Books for an LGBTQ award I’m judging. Much serious. Many trauma. Heartbreak and irony abounding. So, when the McMan title came up in the TBR-for-the-blog pile, my mood immediately rose. I devoured it in two or three sittings, I think. I smiled, I laughed, I drooled over the food descriptions, then I let out a deeply satisfied sigh before plunging back into strife and agony. It rarely works out that way, but who’s to say a romantic comedy shouldn’t have the same weight as Important Books? Oh sure, they do to you and me, but they don’t win awards, and that’s criminal. Is a good laugh less cathartic than a good cry? Who makes that determination using what criteria?

It certainly couldn’t be writing, because McMan has that base covered. She uses all her mad skills to summon seedy Southern strip-mall gothic at its best. The atmosphere she creates is perfect for the off-kilter action that follows. It couldn’t be character, because freewheeling Frankie is a perfect foil for the more conservative Nick. They’re both fully developed and rounded characters—can’t scrimp there. Character is the soul of comedy. And speaking of characters, the National Recovery Bureau’s office manager, Antigone Reece, is a hoot. Part schoolmarm, part Christian shyster, she’s just the thing to keep Fast Eddie tethered to the business.

It couldn’t be the plot, either. McMan has constructed a sturdy framework of fast-paced capers and outrageous steals that border on impossible but somehow manage to get accomplished. Nothing is out of frame or drags, and the explanations all fit. Everything is tied up nicely by the end, the HEA takes place, and all’s right with the world.

Except why this isn’t an Important Book. Probably for the same reasons that Young Frankenstein didn’t win an Academy Award for Best Picture. We always seem to overlook what we need most—a good laugh. So forget the Important Books for a while and get back to the essentials with Ann McMan and The Big Tow. You could use a laugh right now, huh?

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Break Me Down: A Gay Erotic Novella – Travis Beaudoin (Kindle Unlimited)

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Erotica author Travis Beaudoin’s latest novella is a steamy tale of infidelity, brotherly betrayal, and the liberation of taboo desires. The sex scenes have plenty of visceral thrills, though it’s far more than a one-handed read. Break Me Down is a story that bares all with regard to the secrets we keep in relationships and in the bedroom.

Erik is a small-town transplant to New York City and an aspiring Broadway actor in his early twenties. As the narrator of his story, he’s a straight-forward, somewhat jaded guy who makes clear from page one he’s got one foot out the door in his relationship with Chad. Chad is a successful businessman a few years Erik’s senior. Since they met through a hook-up app, Erik hasn’t been honest with Chad that he’s just not that into him. Instead, he drifts along on a path of least resistance while Chad takes steps to develop their relationship as a couple.

It’s not the most likeable portrayal of a young gay man. Privately, Erik bemoans how mediocre Chad is in every way, but he’s expert at acting the part of the loving boyfriend. Like the story’s darker, transgressive themes, Erik’s callousness and sense of superiority is hard to read at times. But Beaudoin takes the reader on a boldly honest journey, which keeps one rapt on how things will unfold. Though Chad’s perspective doesn’t figure in, one wonders how much he knows about Erik’s ambivalence and if he’s pretending in equal measure to Erik. As a study of what’s unspoken in gay relationships, the story is reminiscent of a Peter Cameron domestic drama (The Weekend): real, uncomfortable and human.

Then Chad’s older brother Miles enters the story to overturn the couple’s wobbly applecart with finality. Miles is gorgeous, adventurous, and far more exciting than Chad. He’s also well-aware of his attractiveness, and no sooner than Chad leaves the room, he’s all over Erik. Erik says he hates Miles, and to his credit, he resists Miles’ advances out of respect to Chad. But the writing is on the wall. Erik is unmistakably attracted to Miles’ sexual aggressiveness while unmistakably dissatisfied with Chad’s conventional style of romance.

As the paradoxical literary adage goes, a good ending should be both inevitable and unexpected. Without giving any specifics away, Erik and Miles’ sexual collision is surprising, disturbing, and heartbreaking. The open ending leaves many questions. Was it all just one night’s bad decision? Is there a future for Erik and Miles? Or, perhaps if one squints hard, will the unlocking of Erik’s sexual need to be dominated create a new fulfilling start for him in relationships?

The signals point to a more pessimistic outcome, and the reader may leave the story detesting all three men, but it’s unlikely they’ll leave without recognizing an aspect of themselves in one of the characters.

Little descriptive touches enrich both character and setting. Erik’s fragile self-esteem is evident in his petty rivalry with another actor in an off-off-Broadway show (and what young gay man doesn’t suffer from fragile self-esteem?). Said show Cinderfella, a gay retelling of the classic story with lots of skin, is perfect for the standard fare off-Broadway. Scenes take place at rooftop bars, tiny Greenwich Village theaters, and crowded, boozy piano bars where theatre queens make out and grope each other in dark corners. It’s spot-on scenery for gay life in 2020 (minus Covid). An excellent title for fans of dark literary erotica (sub/dom play included) and gay fiction generally, comparable to David Leavitt and Peter Cameron.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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Polar Vortex – Shani Mootoo (Akashic Books)

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Character-driven novels are sometimes murky creatures, sluggish and slow to respond. Their pacing is off, perhaps because they need a plot and maybe shouldn’t have been character-driven in the first place. And then there are those that simply take off and engage you so thoroughly you don’t miss the convolutions of an overdeveloped plot. Shani Mootoo’s Polar Vortex is one of the latter.

Priya and Alex are a lesbian couple who live in a rural setting far from where they met in the city, leaving their pasts behind. But part of Priya’s past is a man named Prakesh. Their history is complicated, but she’s never told Alex about him. So, when Prakesh finds Priya on social media and contacts her, why does she invite him to visit? As his arrival approaches, the cracks in Priya’s relationship with Alex start to show, forcing them all to make decisions they’d rather not.

From Priya’s initial disturbing dream to the final jaw-dropping revelation, Polar Vortex is the epitome of a slow burn. If Priya’s voice was in the least hypocritical or deceitful, this novel would never have worked. It’s honesty and realism that propels her character, which makes the ending even more delicious, but I can’t spoil that. You’ll have to get there on your own.

The tension, fed by odd scraps of Priya’s prior encounters with Prakesh and the dark cloud that seems to surround him when they knew each other in college, builds slowly, compounded by the problems between Priya and Alex as Alex pushes to know why Prakesh is coming and what he really means to her. Mootoo uses all the levers at her disposal to ratchet up the tension throughout the book, and it gets even worse when Prakesh arrives. His motives are unclear and his manner is bizarre.

Mootoo does an incredible job with all three of the major characters, but Priya’s observations and insights about not only the others but herself as well are sharp and undeniable. And her voice is so immediate, I was sucked in right from the beginning and hooked before I knew it. And Mootoo’s writing is a marvel, spinning from action to internal monologue to fondly remembered anecdote without dropping a semicolon.  

Polar Vortex is a compelling story of the dissolution of more than one relationship, told in a wonderfully unique voice. It’s well worth your time.

JW

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

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After Elias – Eddy Boudel Tan (Dundurn Press)

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Grief is a highly personal process that can manifest itself in many different ways, as you could surmise from my review of Peter Dubé’s The Headless Man. Maybe I should read happier books, you think, and maybe you’re right. However, I’d miss out on some genuinely interesting and moving stories, like Eddy Boudel Tan’s After Elias.

Coen Caraway is at a resort in Mexico waiting for his husband-to-be, Elias, and all the attendees for their destination wedding. Elias, a pilot, is flying in later that day and most of the guests are on their way when Elias’s plane crashes with no survivors. Coen decides to carry on, turning the aborted wedding into a celebration of Elias’s life, but details coming to light after the crash suggest it might not have been an accident.

The wisdom of his decision notwithstanding, Coen is a powerful character. His understandable grief turns to frustration, rage, desperation, and many other emotions, and author Tan balances these all out with finesse, never going over the top with any of them. Between the flashbacks to their life together and the real-time celebration of life—for all its awkwardness—the reader gets an intimate portrait of a relationship whose cracks were beginning to show but were still easily plastered over.

As Coen’s doubts grow, he finds a photo of Elias as a child and decides to take a side-trip to visit Elias’s hometown to see if he can find some answers, moral support provided by his best friend, Vivi, and his brother, Clark, who join him on this odyssey. Clark is another interesting character, tired of the patterns they’d established when they were kids and wanting to engage with Coen on an entirely different level.

In fact, Tan shines in the department of character creation. All the major characters are fully realized and move through the plot confidently. The story never lags, from Coen’s finding out about the crash on TV in a crowded bar to the final revelation provided by Elias’s mother in the concluding scenes. You never know quite where this will go, and I love that. Tan’s prose is uncluttered but not plain. His descriptions of the resort paradise are wonderful, but this novel isn’t about a sense of place—in this world. After Elias is a close examination of not only grief but the disconnectedness of the one left behind and how the survivor restarts in a different direction after such a fatal blow. It provides little in the way of answers—for there are no definitive answers—but paints a detailed and believable portrait of how one man deals with the loss. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Headless Man – Peter Dubé (Anvil Press)

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The intersection of a reader’s experience and an author’s work is unpredictable and fraught with both danger and possibility, which is what makes it so invigorating. The promise of a new read is heady, especially when you’ve enjoyed the author’s work before. But what happens when external forces put a filter between you and the author in midstream? A lens clicks over it, like at the optometrist, and suddenly you don’t see what you saw before. Or maybe you can’t see it at all anymore.

I’ve known Montreal surrealist poet Peter Dubé for many years, and I’ve always enjoyed both his poetry and his prose. His Conjure: A Book of Spells (Rebel Satori Press, 2014) is one of my favorite collections of poetry, so I was excited to receive his latest, The Headless Man: A Novel in Prose Poems.

The spells in Conjure were a tough, albeit rewarding, nut to crack, so I was delighted to find the poems comprising Headless Man were more accessible, providing me with enough of a narrative framework to not only carry me forward but allow me to relax enough to enjoy Dubé’s terse, emotive language. Lots of short sentences. Pieces. Parts. Strung together with articles or pronouns. Then a rush of unpunctuated paragraph, awash with semicolons and connectivity. A rope of meaning in a sea of images. Patterns began to emerge, a whole forming.

What I found most interesting at this point was, as Dubé indicates in “The Birth of the Headless Man,” is the headless man actually has a head. He was born with it at his side, eyes open. But he chooses to close its eyes and hide it. He doesn’t even attempt to put it on. As I read ahead in the table of contents, I see titles like: “The Headless Man Enters Town,” “The Headless Man Goes to the Bank,” “The Headless Man Goes to the Movies,” “The Headless Man Discovers Music,” and “The Headless Man Goes to the Leather Bar,” so I know he’s to undergo a wealth of experiences but has made the choice to do so without the organ that would make all of those experiences worthwhile. How does he find the worth in those experiences, I wonder? Interesting question, one maybe to base a review on. But just as he enters the city and begins to have his adventures, that lens clicked over.

My dog died.

Duncan had been diagnosed the month before with a pretty large and very aggressive tumor near his anal sac. We declined surgery or chemo, feeling he would have no idea why we were doing these awful things to him. No quality of life. So, we decided to spoil him senseless until it was time. Above all, we didn’t want him to suffer. Since the tumor was impacting his anus, we knew it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to poop. But that was the only time you’d see anything different about him. He was still bright-eyed, loved his treats, his walks, and his food. “You’ll know when it’s time,” people said. But when do you really? The best you can do is guess.

Through a much darker lens now, that’s when The Headless Man became about miscommunication or the inability to communicate at all. Added to the mix was our concern for Duncan’s one year younger sister, Lexie, who has never known life without Duncan. What did she know? How was she going to cope with being alone? Our pet communicator, Rebecca Blackbyrd, went a long way toward helping us understand and cope with what our dogs were feeling and going through, but in the end, we just had to decide. We set a date, had a euthanasia service come out, and we put him down at home. Right where he used to watch me cook.

I lost the connectivity to The Headless Man. I could only see the parts and not the whole. The images and not the rope. Or rather, I could see the rope but I could only see it in terms of parts—knots, fraying ends, fibers. I couldn’t hook any of it together anymore. None of it had any meaning for me. I tried to start it over again. I read my notes, but I just couldn’t get a grasp on it. It seemed a lifetime away. Duncan’s lifetime.

So, why even write the review?

Because Peter Dubé has a talent as immense as his love for life, and The Headless Man is an interesting read full of big questions and vivid imagery and is well worth your time if you’re a fan of poetry or surrealism. It’s art that asks the reader to dig deep and exult in its complexities, applying them to the bigger picture. And it deserves your attention.

Besides, Duncan would have wanted me to finish. Leave no bone unchewed, no corner unsniffed, and no bed unwarmed. Goodbye, my beamish boy. You’ll always be my sous chef.

JW

© 2020 Jerry L. Wheeler

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As if Death Summoned – Alan E. Rose (Amble Press)

Bywater Books, long a publisher of lesbian and feminist fiction and narrative non-fiction, is beginning an imprint dedicated to writers of color and to writers across the broader queer continuum. The inaugural book from the Amble Press imprint will be As if Death Summoned by Alan E. Rose, a powerful novel about dying—and therefore by extension, living.

The novel begins with an incident known as the Mt Bogong Tragedy. In August of 1936, three men attempted the first winter crossing of the Bogong High Plains, a vast plateau in the Victorian Alps, some 150 miles north of Melbourne. Caught in a blizzard, only two of the men survived the experience: the third, Cleve Cole, died from exposure. When his body was found, an aborigine woman called Black Mary said, “They brought back only his body.” In subsequent years, hikers walking in the region would report seeing a lone figure, who would vanish when approached.

From there, the novel jumps forward to February of 1995, where an unnamed Narrator returns to Portland, Oregon to hold vigil in a hospital while a friend is dying. During his overnight stay at the hospital, in a series of intertwined flashbacks, we learn more about the Mt Bogong Tragedy, the Narrator’s prior twelve months as a mental health specialist at the Columbia AIDS Project (CAP), and about his ten-year relationship with his lover Gray in Australia immediately preceding his return to the Pacific Northwest—as well as the real reason for the hospital vigil. In many respects, the Narrator is a modern-day Cleve Cole: only his body has returned to Portland. Before the novel begins, he has already performed more than thirty of these hospital vigils, and he is beyond burned out (when he applies to work at the CAP, he has to reassure the rest of the staff that he himself is not suffering from AIDS, because he looks so physically unwell). Over the course of the novel, he learns how to connect to people, how to love again—in short, how to live.

Initially, I have to confess that I was not expecting to enjoy this novel. Haven’t we all read enough AIDS novels already? Do we really need another one? But once I started, I couldn’t put it down. Rose’s novel retells the early days of the AIDS pandemic in Australia and the States during the 80s and 90s, a time when being diagnosed with HIV meant one’s death was imminent. In an introduction, Rose notes the striking differences and similarities between the AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics: in particular, the amount of misinformation, and denial, and especially governmental disregard and how they have played into the spread of both diseases. Moreover, the very human need for connection with others will always hamper any attempts to halt the spread of a contagious disease.

At the end of the novel, the Narrator states:

I recalled my first conversation with Cal, almost one year ago, and his odd statement, how fortunate we were to have been part of this. Part of an epidemic? No, he meant fortunate to have been part of humanity rising up to its noblest and best in meeting a modern plague, fortunate to have witnessed so much courage and compassion, so much grace and dignity, so much self-sacrifice and love. And humor! Undying humor in the face of death. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he said.

And in that moment, I realized, neither would I.

While I can not say that I have reached that level of acceptance/serenity/whatever concerning the AIDS pandemic (much less the current Covid-19 pandemic), I can honestly say that I would not have missed reading his novel.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Compassion, Michigan: The Ironwood Stories – Raymond Luczak (Modern History Press)

Raymond Luczak has written and edited twenty-four books of fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry—you name it, he’s written it. His latest offering, Compassion, Michigan: The Ironwood Stories, is a collection of sixteen short stories set in Ironwood, Michigan, his hometown. With one notable exception, all of these stories center on the lives and loves of Midwestern women, a departure from Luczak’s last collection of short stories, The Kinda Fella I Am, which focused exclusively on the disabled Gay experience.

Which is not to say that Luczak’s experiences as a Deaf Gay man do not inform these stories; in fact, the two stories that begin and end this collection (“Numbers Six and Seven,” “Independence Day”) feature a Deaf protagonist growing up in a hearing family, and it is impossible not to view them at least as partially autobiographical, the female protagonist notwithstanding. The subject of “The Traitor’s Wife” eventually comes out as Lesbian, and the narrator of “Stella, Gone” (although she does not say it in so many words) would now be considered ace. Several additional stories feature Gay characters as well, but the stories are not “about” them and their struggles; these stories are always about the women at their centers, women who deal with desire (frustrated or not), the demands of their families, infidelity, domestic violence, and the myriad experiences of everyday life.

This book is as much about Ironwood as it is about the women who lived and died there. Luczak includes many details about its geography and history; so much so, that I want to know how much of the setting is “real”–instead I went and looked up the Wikipedia article about Ironwood to compare. Set over most if its 130-year history, these stories retell Ironwood’s founding after the discovery of nearby lodes of iron ore, its expansion due to an influx of numerous immigrant communities, its booming heyday during the two World Wars, and eventual decline. “Yoopers” (for non-Midwesterners, this term describes inhabitants of the U. P. [Upper Peninsula] of Michigan) is a delightful story about acknowledging the unique qualities of where you grew up, whether you celebrate them or not. Two of my favorites imagine lost glimpses into small-town life at the beginning of the twentieth century, which are also glimpses into lost LGBT history. “The Ways of Men” re-creates the life of a transman who leaves his privileged life in Detroit for the relative anonymity of Ironwood; according to Luczak, it is based on a true story (although most of it has been lost to time). “Beginnings” is the poignant story about a marriage of convenience between two teachers—and when it suddenly becomes inconvenient.

“Beginnings” and “Stella, Gone” figure among my favorites in this collection for another reason: both retell part of the history of Ironwood, but both also are the recreations of the subject’s lives from the research and memories of the stories’ narrators. If being unable to tell your story is a living death (if not a literal one) as Rebecca Solnit states in the book’s epigraph, then these stories are affirmations of these women’s lives and choices, regardless of the circumstances they had to withstand, or the mistakes they made. Comparisons to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio seem inevitable, given the Midwest setting and the similar themes of isolation and loneliness; however, Luczak has not written a short story cycle (a novel in short stories) like Anderson did. Luczak has crafted an homage, not to Anderson, but rather to the place he grew up and the women who created it.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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