Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Others – Seba Al-Herz (Seven Stories Press)


Buy It Now direct from Seven Stories Press or at Amazon through Dreamwalker Group.

I love books that are able to take me deep inside another culture and help me experience a life totally outside my own. Seba Al-Herz’s The Others does that and so much more – a remarkable feat for a debut novel, but just one of the remarkable feats this book accomplishes.


The story is simple: our nameless narrator is a Shi’a lesbian at a girls’ college in a heavily Sunni province of Saudi Arabia. She falls in love and lust with Dai, a playful, daring consort who continually challenges, vexes and fascinates her as they struggle to maintain their secretive relationship through in the face of prejudice, schoolgirl gossip, temptation and – yes – men.


But the plot is not the point here. Not much really happens in terms of twist and turns. This is a character-driven novel, and what marvelous characters they are. Dai is both exasperating and exhilirating, driving the narrator to do things she – a careful, plodding introvert – would never do. But that introvert is an interesting person in her own right, afflicted with a seizure disorder that effectively alienates her from her own body. This fits in well with the other themes of societal and political alienation in the novel.


Seba Al-Herz’s prose is as sweet and dense as a mouthful of dates. It overpowers at first, but once you find its underlying rhythm, it carries you on a wave of sensuality. I tried to pick out a representative passage but they all sounded incomplete out of context, needing what came before and after to reveal the beauty of their complexity. If, at times, the structure is a bit awkward, I put that down to translation difficulties. It couldn’t have been easy to render the original Arabic to English.


The translator comes into his own in the afterword, whose commentary puts The Others into social, sexual and political context and explains why the overriding theme of excommunication and isolation is so important in the novel as well as in Shi’a society. But that sounds dull in a way the book is not.


The Others is a sumptuous feast of a read, challenging but well worth the time and thought.


Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Advocate Days and Other Stories – Mark Thompson (Queermojo)


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

Back when I was a young queerlet in college, my roommate/BFF/first lover and I used to get in his white Vega and drive from Boulder to Denver in search of casual sex and our monthly copies of The Advocate and After Dark. In my wildest dreams, I’d get my journalism degree, move to San Francisco and work for what I thought was the most important periodical in the world.


But I got sidetracked.


Mark Thompson didn’t, however, and we’re all the luckier for that. Thompson contributed some of the most important and thought-provoking features for The Advocate during its halcyon days. In his most recent book, he casts a fond but fair eye on those days as well as the print debacle that The Advocate eventually became. And when it comes to those dark recent days, he does not spare the rod. That’s what I liked most about the “Advocate Days” part of the book. Thompson and I share many of the same journalistic values – we both prefer substance over style and thinking instead of entertaining.


Those values are also what carry the “Other Stories,” where Thompson presents portraits of such gay luminaries as Harry Hay, poet Paul Monette and the pioneering performance artist Ethyl Eichelberger as well as smaller, more finely painted cameos of men he knew working with AIDS organizations and others who moved him. These chapters are both heartfelt and heart-wise, strong and brimming with love. And he ends with a wonderful ode to his partner, Malcom Boyd, called “On Being a Preacher’s Wife.”


The only shortcoming I can possible think of for these miniatures is that they aren’t long enough. I could have read about Harry Hay, Ethyl Eichelberger and self-made shaman Fakir Musafar all night long. Thompson’s talent is such that he not only gives their accomplishments context but he also allows you to understand the commonalities that drove them all to make their individual marks.


So, if you’re old enough to remember The Advocate when it was a queer cultural force instead of a slick mag selling Melissa Etheridge and $1000-a-plate HRC dinners, you’ll enjoy Advocate Days and Other Stories. And if you’re still young and energetic enough, maybe it will inspire you to start the next queer cultural force.


We sure as hell need one.


Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Murder in the Garden District by Greg Herren (Alyson Books)


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

Scandal-prone dynasties are a tradition in Louisiana politics, and Greg Herren makes the most of that rich, if disturbing, history in his newest Chanse MacLeod mystery. In this fifth installment, Chanse is hired by wealthy matriarch, Cordelia Spencer Sheehan to deflect suspicion from herself for the murder of her politician son. Only her power and position in New Orleans society is keeping her out of jail as Herren underscores the inequality for which Southern justice is historically known. Chanse is reluctant to step into this mess, especially considering how infuriatingly overbearing Cordelia is, but circumstances force him to try to find theories that support Cordelia’s innocence, even while all the evidence points to her.


Chanse and his capable assistant, Abby, work quickly, and they soon unearth a number of Sheehan family secrets and a clearer picture of the victim—a fair-minded, liberal politician who was apparently an abusive, inhumane drunk in his torrid private life. While the “juicy” details of the scandals will keep readers engrossed, this is also an intricately-structured mystery with fully developed characters. Unlike many mysteries, the detectives have very little handed to them, so they actually have to do the work.


Readers familiar with Herren know that the Chance MacLeod series are his “dark mysteries” compared to his lighter Scotty Bradley mysteries such as Bourbon Street Blues. (This actually makes perfect sense for a setting such as New Orleans as the city has a reputation for possessing a “parade and party” identity as well as one of crime and tragedy.) The atmosphere in Murder in the Garden District is tense and foreboding to begin with, but Herren raises the stakes even higher with a major hurricane bearing down on the city and an unknown gunman stalking Chanse. Mystery readers and fans of political thrillers will enjoy this thoroughly.


Reviewed by Gavin Atlas

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Mental: Funny in the Head by Eddie Sarfaty (Kensington Books)

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

I saw standup comic Eddie Sarfaty on stage recently, here in Kansas City. I had seen him perform live before, but never in such a dump. It was the kind of dark and gritty gay bar where you suspected each tawdry surface of hiding something gross, like a turd dipped in glitter.

The “emcee” for the evening was Dirty Dorothy, a self-described lesbian drag queen (I’m not kidding) with orange pigtails, a gingham dress, ruby red shoes, and a potty mouth. How original. The audience came complete with a drunken heckler, the kind who is not even remotely entertaining, just boring and irritating. I wondered why management didn’t throw him out, then realized they couldn’t—he was a regular.

After belting out a perfunctory song, and passing around complimentary “shots” that tasted like Nyquil mixed with Boone’s Farm Apple Wine, Dorothy introduced Eddie. A seasoned performer, the handsome and affable comic wooed the audience, handled the heckler, and let Dirty Dorothy rub up against him. It was all for a good cause—our local AIDS Service Foundation. But for me the highlight of the evening came after the performance, when Eddie sold and signed copies of his new book, a collection of personal essays entitledMental: Funny in the Head.

Standup comics aren’t necessarily good writers. They may understand the structure of a joke, but the structure of a sentence can be something else altogether. And while there may be a storyteller’s soul inside the punster who delivers one ba-dump-bump line after another, that doesn’t mean he can sustain a narrative over the course of many pages.

Happily, Eddie is a natural as a writer. The thoroughly engaging Mental far exceeded my expectations for a book written by a funnyman, being not only funny but solidly well-written. Describing his mother’s plan for a European trip, he captures the wistfulness and homeliness of family life in one sentence:

She slips the faded travel brochures out of the fruit bowl on the sideboard where they’ve been cushioning the bananas for the last six years.

So strongly do I wish I had written that sentence, it makes my toes curl. And to torture myself even further, let me type out a passage from Eddie’s account of working as a bartender at a gay gentleman’s club:

The surreal air of the Eton Club was enhanced by the overwhelming amount of smoke produced by two hundred men puffing away on Marlboros and Virginia Slims. In the hazy dark, the artistic sweeps of glowing cigarettes reminded me of fireflies in search of mates, and I mused about the poor drunks, lured in by the graceful trails of light, who awoke in the morning appalled to get a good look at the insects they’d spent the night with.

Eddie is blessed with more than the satirist’s eye for detail; he also has a heart. While his essay “The Eton Club” may pull no punches in describing an over-the-hill milieu, it also contains a measure of hard-won sentiment. This particular essay stands up against any short story I’ve read in a long, long time.

Eddie, you don’t need my advice, but here it is anyway: don’t give up your night job, if it satisfies your performance jones. But please, please write more books. Lots of them. Okay?

Reviewed by Wayne Courtois

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Pumpkin Teeth – Tom Cardamone (Lethe Press)

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

It might be a bit late for Halloween but any time of the year is right for the kind of shudders and chills you’ll find in Tom Cardamone’s Pumpkin Teeth. This collection of short fiction will take to you to worlds you never dreamed of and introduce you to people you’d rather not know existed. And his journeys are fascinating.

Cardamone’s worlds span an impressive range – from the surrealistic dreamscape of “Yolk” to the post-apocalyptic suburbia of “Lotus Bread” and everywhere in between. You’ll meet a guy who accidentally gets mail for his next door neighbor, a sphinx (“It was about the size of a box of checks,” he says), a man who genetically alters himself into a manatee (“Bottom Feeder”), a homeless girl turned superhero (“River Rat”), and a nurse who works at a retirement home for vampires (“Sundowners”).

It’s not just the variety or breadth of ideas that fascinates me in Pumpkin Teeth. What I keep coming back to again and again is their execution. Entertaining ideas and plots are a dime a dozen (well, maybe a quarter a half-dozen), but Cardamone’s writing is so exquisitely right for each one that I swallowed this book whole in the space of a few hours and had to go back and read more carefully to better admire the style. Ray Bradbury (one of my heroes) came to mind, and Cardamone is as adept at blending beauty and oddity as Bradbury ever has been.

And if the pieces mentioned above aren’t enough to pique your interest, try my two favorites on for size. The first is “Suitcase Sam,” a uniquely disturbing story about a junkie named Dio and his lust to see a person … well, if I say any more I’ll be spoiling it, but Cardamone has the literary chops to make even the most disgusting, grotesque images not only palatable but fascinating. In a nightmarish sort of way. The other story I especially loved was “Sick Days,” a picture of suburban anomie whose dread grows and grows as the characters live a seemingly normal life with a couple of slight differences. In the face of the H1N1 “epidemic,” this tale has a special relevance for us.

If you’re interested in going places you might not ordinarily travel or meeting people you won’t run into every day, let Tom Cardamone’sPumpkin Teeth open your eyes and mind to some beautifully described and defined worlds substantially different from your own.

Unless you are a manatee, that is.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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A (Somewhat Lengthier) Conversation with Sarah Schulman

Facebook message from Sarah:

Jerry,

Is there a way to re-do our interview so that it is interactive- based in human communication? So that, for example, when you asked me about gay people refusing to be in their families, and I replied that the book argues the opposite- you could then come back and and forth with me so we could figure out together why you got that impression. It could be a beneficial conversation that would reveal the ideas at the core of the book. If it can only be rigid pre-conceived questions that can’t change based on new information, it just can’t really address the complexity of a new idea. Know what I mean?
I understand that you don’t want the hassle of having to transcribe a conversation, but could we do one question at a time, so that we can put the INTER back into INTER view?

Let me know. SS

(My response was, obviously, affirmative but pretty long – if anyone wants to read it, I’ll put into the “Comments” section – our e-mail exchange is as follows, unedited and uncut).

JW: What was the catalyst for “Ties That Bind?” Was there a particular incident that sparked your writing it?

SS: The problem w number 1 is that i honestly dont remember. Would it help if i asked you if there is some other way of getting at what you want to know about how or why it was written in a way that deepens but doesnt sum up what is in the book…help me get at what you really want to know/understand here.

JW: Okay, how about “Why did you decide to write about familial homophobia?”

SS: TIES THAT BIND is the first book to examine the experience of homophobia in the family. In fact, I had to coin the phrase “Familial homophobia” because- amazingly, there was no name for the most pervasive experience that gay people share. I had to look in the air and see iron-clad but invisible structures that are determining in the lives of all people, but that had never been articulated or identified. For after all, the family is the place where all people gay and straight first learn about homophobia. It is where straight people are first rewarded and gay people are first punished. Through enormous intellectual will, I spent many years observing, understanding and identifying these structures, and figuring out how to talk about them in a way that would provoke recognition in the reader. How is familial homophobia enforced? Who benefits from it? What are its consequences? How can it be changed? There is, of course, a long tradition of this kind of work- whether it is Said’s revelation about Orientalism, Susan Brownmiller’s discovery that rape is a cultural political crisis, not a personal problem, Rich’s articulation of compulsory heterosexuality etc. I had the good fortune to have spent my life reading books by people who were able to uncover that forces deemed “neutral, natural and value free” are actually, as Rich said “imposed by force.” So that lifetime of reading gave me the tools to be able to undertake this project. I realize that is more of a “how were you able to do this work?” answer and not a “why.” But why individuals take on these kinds of huge tasks is something that can’t be explained really. It’s a combination of neurology, ie the way one’s mind works, and incredibly depth of optimism that may also be biological in nature. Who knows?

JW: What was your first experience with familial homophobia, and how was that enforced?

SS: You know it is so pervasive and on going that to falsely select episodes would be to undermine the experience. I did include a few pages of personal experience in the book but i regret it now because it allows people to pretend that famial homophobia is a personal problem when in fact it is a cultural crisis which is one of the books foundational revelations.

JW: But another of the books contentions is that everyone’s personal experiences with familial homophobia are what, in fact, generate the cultural crisis – that is, if it weren’t happening in families then it wouldn’t be allowable in general society. How can you separate the two arenas?

SS: No. I do understand that the family is the place where all people first learn about homophobia. But for most other conflicts that arise in the family, there is a possibility that the person can find solace or some kind of corrective in the society. In our case, however, the shunning is mirrored in the larger society- with arts and entertainment as the mode of enforcement. To not be represented in a media culture, after all, is to be severely disadvantaged. We can learn from the achievements of the anti-rape movement or the movement against domestic violence, that this hall of mirrors of enforcement does not have to continue. But in order to change the paradigm we have to stop privileging the family. The family does not have the “right” to shun its gay members and it is up to the rest of us to intervene to make that clear. That intervention can range from the gay person’s friends talking directly to the family to make them accountable for their behavior, to homophobia families being court ordered into treatment, the way they currently are for addiction or violence. The idea is to shift the focus from homosexuality to homophobia. To acknowledge that homophobia is the problem. That it is pathological, anti-social, destroys families and causes violence. And to create consequences for its enforcement.

JW: If arts and entertainment are the modes of enforcement and you state that to not be represented is to be disadvantaged, what about the misrepresentation of gay culture? Any representation increases visibility, but is the visibility/enforcement we’re getting in the mass media going to ultimately help or hurt us?

SS: Yes, I wrote a book about this in 1998 called STAGESTRUCK: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America. In it I said that AIDS proved the no longer deniable existence of gay people- so to contain our representation, the dominant culture (corporate culture) created what I called a ” fake , public homosexuality” that fit their needs. This was so amplified by corporate structure that it actually replaced authentic representation created by the gay subculture. What we’re facing now is the consequence of that- which I am addressing in more detail in my next book THE GENTRIFICATION OF THE MIND, which will be published in 2010.

JW: Two questions: 1) Personal third-party intervention also involves the probability of destroying the relationship that allows you to get close enough to the family to intervene – that is, if one intervenes with a friend’s family, the danger is that the friendship is lost and the ally gone. How can you intervene without destroying the relationship? 2) Court-ordering families into treatment is certainly a goal, but how realistic is that immediately given society’s current attitudes towards homosexuality? How do you envision the process we would need to undertake to achieve that sort of intervention?

SS: Your first question is so filled with fear that it borders on the incoherent. Let me try to disentangle. The family is causing the pain by excluding and shunning their gay family member. That is a BAD relationship. It is a relationship in which the straight people in the family exploit the gay person’s lack of power in order to feel the joy of supremacy.
The friends, the state, the institutions in which this family lives, have the opportunity to help move the straight people from causing a terrible relationship to creating a positive one. Through phone calls, letters, ringing the doorbell, sending video testimony, taking out ads in the local newspaper, whatever, the 3rd parties have the opportunity to end the cruelty towards the gay person in the family by creating consequences for the straight person’s actions. It is true that some people are so pathologically wedded to shunning that no amount of support from others toward postitive change can move them. But most people will advance towards sanity if they get the message loud and clear from those around them that their homophobia is the problem.

JW: So if I’m understanding you correctly, your version of third party intervention calls for the phone harassment, doorbell-ringing, ad-buying, “Mr. Smith is a homophobe” picketing used by pro-lifers on doctors who perform abortions as part of their practice or the tactics employed by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Do you really believe shaming and public humiliation are necessary to “create consequences” for homophobic families or will those methods entrench homophobia rather than effect any behavioral changes? (Note: the following response is three e-mails combined)

SS: No. That is not what I am saying. Can we talk on the phone? What you have stated is the opposite of what I am saying. These are the problems of email. Lets talk about it.

Lets try it again:1. The family is harassing the gay person. The person has not done anything wrong and yet they are being punished. They have tried many times and in many way to work with the family for change, but nothing is happening because they are in there alone. The cruelty of the family is having a terrible consequence on the person’s life. Now what do we do to create a better situation?

Just to explain why what you characterized as my position is the opposite of my position:

Your scenario is that there is no originating action. The homophobic family is neutral, natural and value free, they have done nothing wrong. Then, the bad gay person harasses and hurts them. In my scenario there is nothing superior about heterosexuality. Heteroseuality and homosexuality are natural human variants. Yet, the family feels falsely that they are superior. They then enact a wide variety of shunning mechanisms on their gay family member that are punitive. This causes individual and social harm. There is no response from the rest of the family, the victim’s friends, the state, the arts and entertainment industry and the other institutions and communities in those straight people’s lives. The gay person’s can only separate and lose their family, they have no choice.The thing that can be changed here is the lack of response from others. It is true that there are some people who are so pathological and deeply committed to the pleasure of feeling superior to others, that regardless of the social norms around them, they will be rigidly fixed in a shunning position. But MOST people respond to social norms. And social norms are created by the people around them. To date, in many cases the friends of the gay person have been invisible in this scenario, to the gay person’s harm. The family false feels supported in the idea that the gay person doesn’t matter. This can be changed..

JW: I appreciate the clarification, and I understand the difference. In respect to calling you for a phone interview, again, it’s not physically possible. I have no landline and my cell phone will not work with a digital recorder. And I’d want to have that conversation recorded. If you’d like to elaborate further on third party intervention, that would be great, and I’ll join that elaboration with your other answer. If not, we can move on to a question that came to mind in light of Maine’s rejection of gay marriage today. In your chapter on gay marriage, you mention the creation of national and local gay subcultures as shelters necessitated by our having to exist within the larger culture and that the desire for gay marriage is a refusal of those subcultures. Could you explain that in more detail?

SS: Sure. I think it’s obvious that monogamous pairing for life is appropriate for some people. However, it has never been successful for many straight people. The gay liberation movement, which separated love and sex from monogamy for life, created cultural space for folks gay and straight to have more freedom in how they lived their lives. The trauma of the AIDS crisis- a historic cataclysm whose consequences have not been explored- had a determining affect on gay people. Although the true message of AIDS (as I learned from co-directing the ACT UP Oral History Project) is that a group of despised people with no rights joined together and forced this country to change against its will, thereby saving each other’s lives. Unfortunately this reality is not widely known. Instead most people have internalized two messages from the mass death experience: 1) Gay sexuality is dangerous and 2) if you are queer, no one will care about what happens to you. For this reason, post-epi-center AIDS queers have done what Jews did in America after the Holocaust- assimilated into the very cultures that allowed their destruction, thereby losing the greatest strengths of t
heir own culture.

As a result, we are now living in the Gay ’50’s. An era in which we are so self-oppressed that we feel that we only deserve rights to the extent that we are like straight people, or like they hope/pretend to be: monogamously coupled by law for life with children. The other sexual realities of our lives are never discussed in public. All we put forward are couples and families (many of whom are bored to death of each other, sexless, and a negative social force) who resemble heterosexual structures. And we claim that this means we are real human beings. Fortunately, this lunacy will not last. It hasn’t worked for straights and it won’t work for us. Most lesbian mothers will be single mothers, I predict. And soon we will have our own sexual revolution and can return to some kind of sanity.

JW: Our own sexual revolution? That’s an interesting thought – perhaps you could expand on that. What form would something like that take, from what sector of our community might that come and how do you think straight society would view that?

SS: You know, one essential requirement of being an educated person in this era is the knowledge that things do not necessarily progress as time moves forward. For gay people, sexual revolution would mean a return to what we have already discovered, that sexual practice/partners/proclivity should be based on the individual’s interests and pleasures and not on fufilling other people’s expectations.

JW: One last question: What would you like most for readers to learn from “Ties That Bind?”

SS: Seeing ourselves and each other as real human beings means opening many new doors.

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The Gigolo Murder – Mehmet Murat Somer (Penguin Books)

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

Who says a nice, light read has to rely on stock characters, stale situations and the same old places? If you’re tired of buff sleuths who work out solutions while they work out at the gym or San Francisco de-twink-tives, give Mehmet Murat Somer’s Turkish Delight series a try. The second (and latest) installment, The Gigolo Murder, is a hot little kick in the harem pants.

Our nameless detective is a software programmer by day and a drag queen club hostess by night. She is fixated on Audrey Hepburn, especially her My Fair Lady period, and as the book opens, she is depressed over a breakup with her boyfriend. Her best friend, Ponpon, oversees her recovery and return to the drag club, where she meets handsome, married, straight lawyer Haluk Pekerdem.

Their meeting, however, is interrupted by the news that Pekerdem’s (I love typing that name) brother-in-law has been arrested for the murder of Volkan Saridogan, a notorious gigolo and minibus driver. Will our detective be able to solve the murder without using her Thai kickboxing skills? Will she recover from the breakup? Will she score the straight married lawyer? And what about the mysterious assignment she gets from her boss that requires her hacking into Turkey’s central telephone system? I’ll never tell.

Not only are the characters interesting, but their quirks are used to great effect in moving the plot along. The mystery is engaging and Somer has a sharp eye for the well-placed bit of Turkish culture, enriching the book instead of distracting from it. In addition to some laugh-out-loud funny exchanges, there are moments of true tension, especially as our detective finds out just where her computer has led her. And at about 250 pages, it’s a book that doesn’t overstay its welcome – good for a short plane hop and a cab ride to your hotel. So for a good time, call up The Gigolo Murder.

And don’t forget the hookah

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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