Monthly Archives: September 2011

Rosedale in Love – Lev Raphael (Amazon Digital Services)

Buy it now from our Amazon.com store – Rosedale In Love
 

Wish I could find a good book to live in

Wish I could find a good book

Well if I could find a real good book

I’d never have to come out and look at

What they’ve done to my song…

Melanie Safka, “What Have They Done to My Song, Ma”

I knew, I just knew
the name “Lily Bart” had significance beyond Raphael’s use of the name in this
novel. I didn’t have too look far for the particular epiphany the name begged.
Consider this: Lily Bart was the name given by Edith Wharton—we all know Edith,
right?—who in 1904 published “The House of Mirth,” in which Lily Bart is the
tragic presence. In the novel, Lily so desperately wished to be welcomed into
the world of the fabulously wealthy but—and here, perhaps, was her downfall—she
yearned, too, for mutual love, mutual respect from any number of suitors who
pursued her. Lily Bart epitomized the Gibson
Girl
, an idealized representation of the most desirable, and the most
stylish feminine presence within that post-Civil War/Reconstruction era of
American history referred to as the “Gilded Age.”  This was
an age, circa 1870s to 1880s and declining into the first part of the
20th-century, where displays of opulent wealth were unashamedly exercised by
the likes of the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Goulds, the Rockefellers.

Raphael has taken one of the potential suitors to Miss Bart,
Simon Rosedale—named in the Wharton novel—and has created this enchanting
storytelling that focuses primarily upon 
Rosedale’s infatuation with Miss Bart. Raphael goes further, however,
and provides a telling insight into what it was to be a wealthy Jew amongst the
waspish movers and shakers of New York at this particular time in America’s
history. It is of course important to note that the characters who move through
Raphael’s novel are also named in the Wharton novel: Selden, Trenor, Dorset
and, yes, Rosedale and Bart.

I freely admit I’ve never read Wharton. But somewhere along
the line I’ve heard of Lily Bart…a tragic figure in literature if there ever
was one. Additionally, I do not seek out novels that are somewhat akin to fan
fiction, where the author latches onto characters and, indeed, plot points  already explored in previous works by other
authors. Having said that, I do suspect that Raphael’s intention in writing
“Rosedale in Love” represents his particular passion for enlarging
upon—celebrating even!—a character who might have been given short shrift in
the original storytelling from Wharton. Indeed, Raphael explores, in depth,
Simon Rosedale’s internal struggle to fit in with the swells of the time, to
prove himself worthy of Lily Bart, and to overcome what he believes to be the
scourge of his Jewishness.  

Rosedale’s confessor, friend, advisor in manners and all
things social, is his cousin, Florence Goodhart, who has ensconced herself in
the Waldorf-Astoria. (Raphael takes us to the Waldorf-Astoria, and provides
lovely detail of the magnificent edifice, the interior, the bejeweled and
bedecked denizens who glide so easily through such opulence.) To tell you much
of anything at all about Florence—a character who perhaps warrants as much
discernment as the protagonist, Rosedale—would be gratuitous. Suffice it to say,
Florence is a very, very important character in this novel. I will leave it at
that.

Raphael has done his homework. He has written a very
accurate, studied portrait of the era in which this novel is set. His use of
archaic language is charming, productive for those of us who value the meaning
of words (and, incidentally, don’t mind checking a dictionary to get to that
meaning).

“Rosedale in Love” is a superbly written historical which,
if Wharton were to emerge incarnate one of these days and pick up Raphael’s
novel, I’m sure at first she’d wonder, “What the hell! Look what he’s done to
my story!” After reading the last word, however, I’m equally sure she’d
conclude that Lev Raphael has built a good home, a good book for her Rosedale,
Bart and the others to live in, a contemporary home where even she, Wharton, is
necessarily celebrated.             

Reviewed by George Seaton

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Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination – Sheila Cavanagh (University of Toronto Press, 2010)

Buy it direct from the publisher or from our Amazon.com store – Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination
 

I started
reading Sheila Cavanagh’s Queering Bathrooms while traveling to
Nashville for the Human Rights Campaign’s Summer Institute for LGBTIQ scholars
of religion and theology.  It was
interesting, and just a tad bit unsettling, to read a book focused on the
ideological underpinnings of bathroom architecture while traveling—i.e., while
encountering, entering and using so many public restrooms, in airports,
restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, university buildings.  Cavanagh’s book gave me a new set of eyes and
ears for what happens in the public lavatory.

Cavanagh’s
central claim—that bathrooms are a site where gender and sexuality are
surveilled, performed, regulated, defined and disciplined—will hardly be news
to her queer- and trans-identified readers. 
But the care and complexity of her presentation provides a wealth of
newfound insight.  Cavanagh situates her
analysis of the public bathrooms within a historical narrative beginning in the
Victorian era.  She notes that the public
restroom came into being at a time when epidemiology was first discovering the
relation between human waste and the spread of disease.  She also notes that this was a time when the
threat of contagion was linked to colonized bodies, bodies of color, and
lower-class bodies.  She links the fights
over gender-segregated bathrooms in our time to fights about racially segregated
bathrooms in prior decades.  In other
words, she traces how, since its inception, the public bathroom has been a site
of regulating and disciplining dangerous and chaotic bodies as much as it has
been a space for relieving oneself.  (One
of the most interesting things I learned in reading the book is in the
mid-nineteenth century there were no public restrooms for women.  Women of good breeding were not supposed to
be in public very much at all, and certainly should never take care of their
“needs” in public.  Rather than use a
public restroom, they wore “urinettes”—tube-like apparatuses that were tied
around the waist and hung between the legs so that women could urinate
undetected while standing.)  While this
gesture to the racial, class, ethnic and colonial history of bathrooms and
bathroom architecture could have been developed in more detail, her gesture to
a much broader context for her argument—and its importance—underscores the
value of thinking about the quotidian with care.

Cavanagh also
situates her work in the larger theoretical conversation about gender and
sexuality.  She easily references the
work of Freud and Lacan, Foucault and Butler, Irigaray and Silverman.  For the most important ideas, she offers
brief explanations that will help orient the theoretically uninformed reader.  And for most of the analysis, her close
attention to the details of specific cases or stories will illuminate the
theoretical ideas under discussion.  For
the educated and motivated lay reader, then, the book should be accessible and
will even provide an entry point into the world of theory that undergirds the
book’s analyses.  For the academic
reader, the book will provide a number of provocative insights.  Cavanagh also takes great care to show where
queer theory’s focus on gender and gender norms is not always adequate for
thinking through the very different experiences faced by trans-identified
subjects.  While there is much insight to
be gained from Cavanagh’s theoretical analyses, and even more to be done by extending
and developing her suggestions, she sometimes moves too quickly from one
theorist to another, letting brief slogans stand in for more careful
exposition.  If she had slowed her
expository pace and narrowed her theoretical pluralism a bit, her text may have
been more developed than suggestive. 

The most
interesting aspect of Cavanagh’s study, however, comes from the 100 interviews
she conducted with a wide range of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer
individuals who conform and fail to conform to standard gender norms in a
variety of ways.  Through reliance on
this interview material, real people’s experiences and bodies to show up in the
text, allowing Cavanagh to develop an incredibly rich picture of the regulatory
violence performed in the space of the bathroom.  Each chapter of the book is rich with
commentary by Cavanaugh’s interviewees and although she organizes this material
with a deft hand, she lets these subjects speak for themselves.  Sometimes Cavanagh allows interviewees to
speak for others—gay men speak about trans men’s experience, femme lesbians
speak about butch experience—but this is rare. 
Moreover, butch lesbians and trans folk of all stripes appear as their
own spokespeople with great frequency.

Cavanagh’s
central theoretical insight is the notion of “mirroring.”  According to Cavanagh, based on her reliance
on Lacan and Butler, we come to understand our gendered and sexual selves in
part by seeing these selves reflected to us by people and images in the world.  In gender-exclusive spaces, such as
gender-segregated bathrooms, people expect to have themselves mirrored
perfectly.  When a bathroom denizen does
not have this experience, when a person’s gender performance does not conform
to the space—the butch person in the women’s room or the effete person in the
men’s—it can create disorientation, anxiety and confusion for those occupying
that space who identify more closely with the norm.  As Cavanagh demonstrates with her interview
information, reactions to mixing gender in public restrooms rarely stems from a
fear of sexual violence (one of the main justifications for gender-segregated
bathrooms).  In women’s rooms especially,
butch lesbians and trans women are confronted, harassed, threatened and
physically assaulted by cis-gender women. 
These women are clearly not frightened by the “intruders,” but are
experiencing some form of anxiety and threat that expresses itself not in
flight, but in an aggressive stance.  By
thinking carefully about what is happening in the space of the bathroom,
Cavanagh provides critical insight about the anxieties that queer and trans
bodies generate in our culture generally.

Cavanagh also
provides an incredibly rich and wide-ranging account of how the disciplining,
regulatory function of the bathroom finds its way into psyches and bodies.  She thinks about the senses of sight,
hearing, smell and touch as well as the function of desire in the bathroom
space.  Typically, bathrooms are bright,
well-lit spaces where it is easy to examine other people’s bodies, even if the
gaze must sometimes be averted.  There
are sounds that are peculiar to gendered bodies and elimination, its pleasures
and its efforts.  This relates to the
difference in the sound of peeing standing up and sitting down as well as the
famous canard that women talk in the bathroom while men remain silent.  Cavanagh also examines the ways in which men
and women think about the other’s bathrooms as “disgusting,” and the terms that
express that disgust differently.

In addition to
giving me a new perspective on bathrooms and their cultural and political work,
it was interesting to read Cavanagh while attending the Summer Institute
because it is devoted to blurring the line between scholarship and
activism.  Cavanagh demonstrates in Queering
Bathrooms
that historically, theoretically, ethnographically sophisticated
scholarship can shed new light on the political dimensions of our everyday
habits and taboos.  A variety of
audiences will find much to appreciate and value in Cavanagh’s study.

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

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Frat Boys – Shane Allison (Cleis Press)

Buy it now direct from Cleis Press.

I wasn’t going to review this, the latest erotic anthology
by Shane Allison. After all how many times can we beat (a dead horse to
death)…err…off…to the same old theme. Frat Boys, Hot Daddy’s, Hot Jocks, gay
erotica seems to be heading down the same path as Hollywood, remake, after
remake, after remake. Has gay culture really become this mundane?

It wasn’t until I saw the list of contributing authors for
this collection that I decided to put away my bitchy attitude and read another
collection of stories about men at college. I’m glad I did because the authors that
Shane has gathered, such as Jeff Mann, Gavin Atlas, and Hank Edwards; just to
name a few have blown new life into this deflated theme.

Big Brother by Rob Rosen was a fun and unique read about two
fraternity brothers, a mouse hole in the wall, and what happens when the pledge
is caught red-handed. A refreshing story that was both touching and incredibly
hot as only Rob could do.

The Laius League by Gavin Atlas. One of the things you can
always count on with Gavin is a well written story, but what I like most is
that no matter what the theme, Gavin can come up with the most unusual, most
creative story imaginable, and the Laius League is a perfect example of his
creative abilities. A one hundred year old secret society, submissive freshman
and one insatiable bottom who cannot control is sexual appetite long enough to
raise to the next level of the society. Gotta love it!

Blue Briefs by Jeff Mann. What can one say about Jeff Mann’s
writing. It’s brilliant in every aspect. The characters of Nate and Jeff are
real people, or at least you feel as if they are thanks to Jeff’s prose. The
story is about love and losing that love, and in Jeff’s sexy, harmonious way it’s
also about the pleasures of bondage and everything that comes along with it.

Old Glory by Hank Edwards. I’ve only recently become acquainted
with Hank’s writing and I have to say it’s always a complete thrill to see his
name in the table of contents. Old Glory is a great play on words and the story
gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “old switcheroo.” If only my
college days could have been this fun. Horny college men, a female pledge, a
makeshift glory hole, and one hell of a good time when Jay decides to take the
girls place. A fun, sexy and enjoyable read.

There are many other noteworthy stories in the collection
such as Three Little Lambs by Neil Plakcy, Lessons from the Library by Rick
Archer, Giving it Up for the House by Christopher Pierce, and Frat House
Midnight Snack by Jeff Funk. Don’t do what I almost did and look the other way
on this collection, sure it’s another collection of an all too familiar theme,
but the stories that Shane has put together are anything but tired. You however,
may be by the time you finish reading these sexy pieces of erotic fiction.

Reviewed by William Holden

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Trick of the Dark – Val McDermid (Bywater Books)

Buy it now direct from Bywater Books

Val McDermid is a national treasure. Unfortunately, it’s not
our nation. This marvelous Scottish crime writer of twenty-four novels has an
unimpeachable reputation as one of our leading literary figures, and her
latest, Trick of the Dark, is yet another example of her considerable
storytelling abilities.

Charlie Flint, a police psychiatrist undergoing a serious
career crisis, is called back to Oxford, her old stomping grounds, to aid a
former professor who wants Charlie to investigate the death of her daughter’s
husband. The stumbling block? Her daughter’s very new lesbian relationship with
one Jay Macallan Stewart—successful author, former dot-com businesswoman,
mountain climber and possible serial killer. As if Charlie’s plate wasn’t full
enough, she’s also contemplating cheating on her own wife.

As with all McDermid’s work, Trick of the Dark is
sumptuous and literary without being esoteric. She has a craftsman’s eye for
detail and a winning way with the creation of voices. Her Charlie Flint is
totally different and distinct from her Jay Macallan Stewart, whose voice we
get to hear as she’s writing a memoir that McDermid quotes from at length.

But all the style and detail would mean little if the
mystery at the heart of the story wasn’t so damn involving. McDermid wastes no
time. She hits the ground running and pauses only long enough for the reader to
gather his breath and consider the possibilities before she starts working
through the twists and turns again. You think you might possibly have a sort of
inkling of who’s behind the trail of murders, but you don’t really figure it
out until seconds before Charlie does—masterful plotting combined with an
extraordinary sense of timing.

You’d expect a writer of McDermid’s reknown to come through
with great main characters, but I even found her minor characters
interesting—Charlie’s wife, Maria, for example. There’s so much going on that
it’d be easy to lose her in the shuffle, but she’s rarely out of Charlie’s
thoughts, even though many of those are guilt-induced. McDermid does an
admirable job of depicting her as one of the sources of Charlie’s strength and
intelligence. She brings Maria and their relationship to the forefront as often
as she does the mystery, never losing sight of either.

If you’ve read Val McDermid before, Trick of the Dark
will be a great addition to your collection. If you haven’t, this standalone
work is an excellent starting point. But be warned that you might become
addicted. Ah well. It’s cheaper than crack.

And you couldn’t get a better literary high. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Plus Ones – Hank Edwards (Loose ID)

Buy it now direct from Loose ID or from our Amazon.com store – Plus Ones
 

Screwball romantic comedies are like souffles—they have to
be frothy enough to be worthy of the genre yet substantial enough to satisfy on
all levels. And a bad one leaves a horrid taste in your mouth. Fortunately,
Hank Edwards is a master chef who doesn’t have to worry about his main courses
and his latest rom-com, Plus Ones, is no exception.

Gorgeous Evan Dresden meets beautiful Paul Cooper at a
dinner party hosted by Alden (Evan’s college chum) and his partner John. But
before love can blossom, a series of social blunders prevents Evan and Paul
from getting together. However, they keep being invited to a series of summer
weddings—always as “plus ones,” attached to other men. Each thinks of the other
as a serial dater and not husband material, but their attraction is
unquestionable. How do they finally get together? I can’t tell you, but I can
tell you that getting there is half the fun.

Edwards’ creates some wonderful characters here. Evan is
clumsy and, at times, churlish but also charming and complex. His intended,
Paul, is also a bit of a prickly pear, which only adds to the difficulty of
pairing these two off. And Edwards’ is a damn funny writer, turning some
laugh-out-loud phrases. Unlike so many other practitioners of the genre,
Edwards’ relies on good characterization and interesting situations to give his
humor organic origins instead of trading on weak stereotypes.

On another level, Plus Ones is a neatly done send-up
of the whole gay wedding scene, satirizing everything from traditional
ceremonies to Wild-West themed hitchin’s. And in that vein, Edwards’ hilarious
anal-retentive, homoNazi wedding planner, Jeremy, threatens to steal every
scene he’s in. The book is worth the money for this character alone. Another of
Edwards’ talents is the amount of punch he packs into a relatively short book.
We get three or four weddings, as many potential and ex-boyfriends for our main
characters, a cuckolded wife, and a beautifully resolved love affair (with its
accompanying twists and turns) all in 146 pages, but not one thread is left
hanging.

But what else could we expect from the creator of the
marvelous Charlie Heggensford series? Edwards has a real flair for this sort of
romantic eroti-comedy and, although I know he’s branching out into other
genres, I hope he never leaves this one fully behind. If you love Heggensford,
you’ll love Plus Ones.

And if you’ve never read Hank Edwards before, this is a
perfect place to start. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Dirty One – Michael Graves (Chelsea Station Editions)

Buy it now from Giovanni’s Room or from our Amazon.com store – Dirty One
 

One of the great joys of doing this blog is that
occasionally I run across an author whose work I’ve never read before but grabs
me almost immediately—seizing me by the throat and touring me around a twisted
world I’ve never before experienced. Michael Graves is my latest demented tour
guide and Dirty One, a collection of his short fiction, is a perfect gem
of multi-faceted characters with flaws aplenty.

The young adults that populate Graves’ fiction are skewed,
skittering through their adolescence with a drug- and demon-fueled intensity
that leaves the reader breathless and aching to sit down with these poor kids
to let them know that things do, indeed, get better. Still, the kids are only
following the examples of their even more fucked up parents, most of whom have
no business having kids in the first place. But the drama… The drama is
delicious and makes for some of the finest reading I’ve had in months.

The nine stories comprising this slim, power-packed volume
mostly take place in the suburb of Leominster, MA and while they don’t all have
the same characters, they all have the same odd American Gothic feel of
alienation and separation. For example, the opening story, “Comb City” features
eight-year-old Philip, separated from his mother and his birth city because his
celebrity father needs a place to recover from recent plastic surgery away from
the paparazzi. Philip, of course, acts out—much to the dismay of his
neighbor’s cat. In the sly “From Kissing,” a sixth-grader named Butch, who
loves making friendship bracelets with his cousin Sherrie, goes to the monster
truck rally with Milo, who slips Butch his first tongue kiss. When Butch comes
down with the flu, he’s convinced Milo has given him AIDS. From the vaguely
creepy “Bath Time” to “Do It,” in which Denise pines for a boyfriend who can
make love to her and maintain an erection, Graves’ kids use every resource they
can to cope with the unfair and unreasonable burdens with which they are saddled.

Two stories, however, continue to stick with me days after I
finished the book.  “A Snow Day” captures
teen idol wanna-be Cassidy whose father is the town’s infamous gay pedophile.
Its ending—which has nothing to do with molestation—is so shocking, so unexpected,
that I had to read it a few times to confirm what was happening. Then, I closed
the book and thought about how remorselessly evil some people can be.
“Seahorse” is the story of a huffer named George, his boyfriend Woody and
George’s quest to have a baby. And—as I now remember—it was one of the best
tales in Blair Mastbaum’s terrific anthology of a few years ago, Cool Thing.

But none of these plots would mean a thing if it weren’t for
Graves’ prose style, which incorporates all senses to hurl you into a world of
simple images so startlingly true they could be poetry. Hell, they are
poetry. His dialogue sounds so natural, it could have been overheard at the
mall. Graves is one of the most original young voices writing for our community
today—so pick up a copy of Dirty One and you can tell your friends that
you were a fan from the beginning.

Because you will be. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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The Third Buddha – Jameson Currier (Chelsea Station Editions)

Buy it now from Giovanni’s Room or from our Amazon.com store – The Third Buddha
 

On the surface, the disaster of 9/11 is as far from
Afghanistan dramatically as it is geographically, but in his latest novel The
Third Buddha
, Jameson Currier draws them close with intertwining yet
parallel stories, crossover characters and his most richly detailed writing
yet.

The 9/11 story concerns Ted, a student who drops out of law
school to search for his gay brother, Philip (Pup), presumed dead after the
collapse of the Twin Towers. Also gay, though not yet out, Ted discovers much
about his brother, including his boyfriends and an entire life he’d always
sensed but Pup kept quiet around their family. The Afghanistan story revolves
around broadcast journalist Jim MacTiernan and his lover and partner behind the
camera Ari Sarghello. On assignment, a jeep they are riding in hits a land
mine, killing the other passengers. Dazed and injured, Ari wanders away
suffering from amnesia while Jim is rescued, refusing to leave Afghanistan
until he finds Ari again. Meanwhile, Ari is taken in by an Afghan family and
lives as a native while he tries to recover his memory.

Yes, the plot is complicated. However, Currier never lets
the threads drop or the interest flag. Once you’re inside the story, the twists
and turns are easily followed, and a fair number of these characters are in
both stories—Ari and Pup, for example, had an affair before Ari hooked up with
Jim. Both stories are equally compelling. Ted’s coming out in Chelsea is both
heartwarming and heartbreaking, especially his on again/off again thing with
the self-loathing Rico, who lost his sister in the Twin Towers.

Currier neatly draws parallel portraits of Ted and Ari, both
of whom live the lives of others until they regain footing on more solid
ground. Ted tries to emulate his brother’s gay life, including having a fling
with one of Pup’s old fuckbuddies, while Ari attempts to become part of his
Afghan family living in the mountain caves outside of Bamiyan. He feels a
responsibility to those who saved him, even to the extent of working at an
archeological dig to get money to give to them. Both Ted and Ari explore the
boundaries of these borrowed lives, using what they’ve learned when they find
their own paths—Ted to a normal, grief-free gay life and Ari to his career and
home with Jim.

Currier’s characters are marvelous here, and he has a
terrific eye for telling details that do so much to set scenes. His post 9/11
New York City is jittery and tentative, much like Ted’s relationship to the seedy
Rico, and his Afghanistan is hot, ominous and damaged by war, occupation and
predators. The landscape here is almost a third major character in this story,
shifting and changing on the surface while its cultural bedrock remains
stubbornly stable.

The Third Buddha is as engrossing as it is
detailed, never failing to entertain as it breaks down some pretty large themes
to bite-sized acts of beauty and humanity. It’s a truly memorable journey. 


Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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