Monthly Archives: September 2009

All I Could Bare – Craig Seymour (Atria/Simon & Schuster)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

I have to confess that the title alone drove this memoir of a male stripper to the bottom of my reading pile again and again. Such an awful pun was going to herald either a work of audacious genius or drooling stupidity. As it turns out, the book was neither.

Seymour, an entertainment writer and English professor at the University of Massachusetts, got into stripping as a grad student, and this book (I can’t bring myself to type the title again) is supposed to be “a frank, funny, explicit and inspiring memoir about how dancing naked in gay clubs in the nation’s capital helped a college professor discover his true self.” At least that’s what the back cover blurb suggests.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite rise to that promise. It may be frank, but it’s not very funny nor is it terribly explicit. Inspiring? Sorry. You’re gonna have to explain that one to me. And the college professor doesn’t discover his true self as much as he floats through a series of rather tame sexual episodes with no real insight before moving on to interviewing Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes.

And speaking of those interviews, how do they relate to what Seymour learns about himself in strip clubs? He attempts to make some connection that his time shaking his dick on stage led him to take risks during interviews. Okaaaaay. But is it worth taking time away from the promise the book makes to detail what it was like talking about masturbation with Janet Jackson? Or is it name-dropping filler?

Discerning Seymour’s purpose is difficult, largely because his prose is flat and oddly distanced from his subject, as if he’s writing about himself by remote control. This makes the strip club episodes as well as his forays into the sex-for-pay arena less effective than they should be. He tells us how he feels, but he doesn’t show us or make us feel it with him. His premise has great dramatic potential that is never explored or taken advantage of. Ultimately, the book’s greatest sin is its blandness.

Maybe this really is all he could bare. And that’s a shame.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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The First Risk – Charles Jensen (Lethe Press)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

I am in awe of poets.

Poetry has a mystical quality to me. It’s so immediate and direct – paragraphs of prose metaphor boiled down and simmered into a reduction of thought and expression as colorful as it is delicious. And no meal I’ve had lately has provided more food for thought than Charles Jensen’s incredible collection of poetry, “The First Risk.”

“The First Risk” is broken down into four sections. The first deals with the death of Matthew Shepard as well as impressions of the painting “Death of Adonis” by the Italian Renaissance painter Luca Cambiaso. The second sequence is voiced by the women of director Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother,” the third deals with love and obsession in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and the final piece is a verse novella called “The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon,” about a physicist’s search for his lost wife.

The Matthew Shepard poems are stark, vivid and deeply moving, particularly “I Am the Boy Who Is Tied Down” and the title piece of this section, “Safe.” The alternating poems about Venus discovering the body of Adonis provide a compelling ancient counterpoint to the modern tragedy, parallelling Matthew Shepard’s death it as it provides a sense of relief from its immediacy. I can’t get away without quoting a bit from “Safe”:

“How can we live with this knowledge
that he struggled, that he knew they would kill him,
that he begged anyway
that they laughed
and bought cigarettes with his pocket change
I was twenty-one. It was autumn.
How are we to live
in this cage of knowing.”

If chills aren’t running down your spine, you’d better be checking your central nervous system.

Jensen’s work is informed by the cinema, from the Almodovar-inspired pieces that comprise “City of the Sad Divas” to the “Vertigo” poems as well as the verse novella. The last two sections alternate exposition with illustration, much like the films of Kurosawa and Sergio Leone – beautiful, brilliant and heady yet totally accessible. Kudos also go to Toby Johnson, whose book design is an integral component of this incredible whole.

“The First Risk” is an absolute wonder and leaves me right where I started this post – in awe. Buy a copy and join me.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Basketball Jones – E. Lynn Harris (Doubleday)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

Books like this always cause me strife and result in self-examination on my part. Is it a crapfest? Oh yes – but it’s a crapfest that has not only sold well but accumulated over 50 five star reviews on Amazon. Okay, Amazon.com is hardly the last word on taste and good reading, but its influence on books and readers is undeniable. And they loved this book. What’s wrong with me?

I’ll tell you what – nothing, damn it.

For those curious to know more, “Basketball Jones” is the story of AJ Richardson, the kept dude of basketball star Drayton “Dray” Jones, who is married and on the downlow. There is Judi, Dray’s wife, and there is a blackmail plot. There is also a best friend, a snappin’ fierce female character named Jade and a pat, telegraphed ending. And that’s all you need to know.

The negatives? Flat, lazy writing (one character is described as “just like Edie from ‘Desperate Housewives’” – useless for those of us who haven’t had the privilege of meeting her), shallow, dislikeable characters who sport designer labels and brand names in some literary equivalent of product placement and plot holes you could drive a Peterbilt through. On a positive note, it’s less than 260 pages.

A friend who actually liked this collection of sour stereotypes told me, “It’s a good, light beach read.” I submit that even the lightest of beach reads requires some investment in character and plot – some resonance, some essential truth with which to connect. I found no investment here other than the $15 this hardbound hackwork cost, which was hardly money well spent. Yet it sells. And it gets wonderful reviews. That’s the real crime. Junk like this racks up sales in the millions while far worthier authors like Wayne Courtois, Trebor Healey, Scott Heim, Jeff Mann, Radclyffe and so many others go virtually unnoticed on the best-seller lists.

My dirty little secret is that I’ve tried to sell out the way Harris has. I’ve tried to write this kind of stuff, but I can’t. Every time I try, I have to put some weird-ass spin on the plot or give the characters some bizarre trait that only their mothers could love. That’s the only way I can keep it interesting enough for me to finish writing it. So I suppose I’ll never sell three million copies of anything.

If I have to write something like “Basketball Jones,” to do it, I’d rather starve anyway.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Murder on Camac – Joseph R.G. DeMarco (Lethe Press)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

A detective who owns a male strip club? Why not? I’m sure the P.I. business is suffering right along with everything else in today’s economy, so investigators need their extra sources of income. And as far as sidekicks go, you could do worse. Baretta had his cockatoo and … well, I’ll leave the pun to your imagination.

But Joseph DeMarco’s first Marco Fontana mystery, “Murder on Camac,” has more than scantily clad boys going for it. It’s a meaty whodunit involving the murder of one Helmut Brandt, an author investigating the death of Pope John Paul I – you know, the one who was Pope for about ten minutes before he died. Brandt has apparently stumbled onto some rather delicate Church secrets but gets gunned down on a Philly street before he can expose what he knows. Or is it something more mundane that caused his death? Brandt’s eye wandered from his older partner, Tim Hollister, more than once. Could it be a jealous lover that did him in? If I said more, I’d be spoiling it.

DeMarco’s prose is as fast-paced and dextrous as his plotting, and he wrings every bit of juice from even his minor characters as he puts them through their paces. But the star of the show is Marco Fontana, who can put together the pieces of the mystery as well as maintain StripGuyz, though he has help with the latter in the person of Anton, his right-hand man at the club. Anton also doubles as some romantic tension. Oh sure, they have great sex, but will they be the next Bogie and Bacall? Only another installment will tell.

Well-crafted and populated with interesting people, “Murder on Camac,” has just the right blend of strip club musk and Catholic intrigue to create a heady perfume just right for inhaling on a muggy Philadelphia night. Fill your lungs and don’t exhale until you’re sure who killed who.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Kelland, by Paul G. Bens, Jr. (Casperian Books)

Buy it Now at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

No light snack, Kelland is a novel you can sink your teeth into, chew on for a good while, and still have more for later. This is good news, since its dark, mysterious, smoky flavor is worth savoring.

Bens’s strategy is to introduce us to a collection of disparate characters, then lead us along—courtesy of his confident, unobtrusive prose—as we learn their stories and seek a reason for bringing this seemingly random grab-bag of people and events together.

The key to the mystery is Kelland, a protean being who appears in each character’s life in some unexpected way, with fateful results. As various strands of narrative are pulled artfully together, the story reaches a climax in which a violent act expresses the grief and rage and guilt of these characters, and brings a different outcome to each.

It is up to the reader, finally, to decide who or what Kelland is. Nemesis? Agent of change? Fate personified? It says a lot for this novel that it leaves us with questions that are well worth pondering.

Kelland did contain some disappointments for me. A few scenes had a perfunctory feel, as if the author were rushing to establish some plot points and move on. A wedding scene, for example, seems to have been plucked from a box labeled “generic wedding scenes.” And I ached for Lucas, a 15-year-old, to show some trace of personality in his online journal, which reveals nothing about the boy as a person—it’s all generic teen angst. I would have loved to come away from the book with a sense of Lucas as a memorable character.

The most developed character here is Toan, a Vietnamese immigrant with a difficult past and uncertain future. A gay man and a musician, his life is going about as well as can be expected when more misfortune strikes. Toan works and lives in a Hollywood neighborhood that is rich in detail and atmosphere; if the novel consisted solely of his story, it would be well worth reading. We’re fortunate that Bens gives us much more in this generous and ambitious book.

Reviewed by Wayne Courtois

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Qualities of Light – Mary Carroll Moore (Spinsters Ink)

Buy it Now at Giovanni’s Room or at Amazon through The Dreamwalker Group.

The good news is this is a wonderful, engagingly nuanced coming out story that deserves attention. The bad news? It has one small flaw that drove me batshit crazy every time I picked it up.

Molly Fisher, a 16-year-old girl spending the summer with her family in a cabin beside an Adirodack lake, is a troubled teen. She is responsible for a boating accident that left her younger brother, Sam, comatose and her folks equally distant – both from her and from each other. Into this bleak picture steps Chad, who has a crush on Molly, and Zoe Novotny, a year older than Molly but far more worldly. She also has a crush on her.

Moore has written a beautiful book that captures not only the heartbreak of a family tragedy but the wonder of coming out – realizing who you are and what makes you happy. The characters are thoroughly fleshed out and three-dimensional, and her descriptions of lakeside mornings are so full of place you can almost smell the tang of the watery air. She is as adept at painting the still-life of a hospital room as she is the awkwardness of teenage romance, straight and gay.

Ah yes, the flaw – every single instance of the word “okay” is capitalized.

It’s small but irritating, like a pebble in your shoe or – if you’re a princess like me, a pea under your mattress. The first time I saw it, I thought it was just a typo. The second and third time, I figured Moore was trying to make some larger philosophical comment on the concept of “Okay-ness.” After that, it just became annoying. Every time I saw it, it jerked me out of the narrative and distracted my attention. I’d spend the next few paragraphs half reading and half fuming at the intrusion until I was able to settle back down into the beauty of the book. Then, it’d happen again.

However, you might ride right over it – and even if you don’t, it’s no reason not to experience the subtle pleasures of this atmospheric and richly textured book.

Okay?

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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