Monthly Archives: December 2011

My Brother and His Brother – Hakan Lindquist (Bruno Gmunder)

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Buy it now from TLA

I only know Bruno Gmunder’s output from those marvelously
expensive coffee-table books of photography. Naked men in compromising
positions always have a place in my living room, two-dimensional or otherwise.
However, this Swedish novel is a little gem that deserves as much attention as
Gmunder’s more skinworthy projects.

Jonas is a teenager intrigued by the presence of Paul, an
older brother who died before Jonas was born. His investigation leads him to
the discovery of a diary detailing Paul’s relationship with Petr, a Czech
immigrant Paul met in school. Their love affair as well as some startling
revelations about an older family friend named Daniel brings Jonas closer to
his own family as well as the brother he never met.

This deceptively simple and relatively short book is
different from others I’ve read with similar plots in that Jonas does not use
his brother’s sexuality to put his own into context. There is no indication
here that Jonas is himself gay. Nor is he judgmental about Paul and Petr. He is
curious about the brother he will never know, but his curiosity never becomes
prurient. This seemingly small difference brings a refreshing objectivity to
the situation and allows the reader to focus more on Jonas’ search and how he
absorbs that information.

Jonas is fully realized as a character and even his parents
become multi-dimensional—quite an achievement considering how sparely they’re
drawn and how innocuous their conversations seem. The in-depth conversations
are reserved for Daniel, a friend of Jonas’ mother. Only Daniel, who is
gay and was Paul’s confidante, can unlock that part of Paul for Jonas. Although
his version of the story is a bit self-serving, enough solid facts remain for
Jonas to piece together what actually happened between Daniel and Paul as well
as how his affair with Petr progressed.

The symmetrical storyteller in me wants Jonas’ parents to
have this information, and I would have relished a scene in which he tells them
what he’s found out. But perhaps symmetry would not work in this case. Jonas’
search is so personal and so private that keeping the result to himself is only
natural. Revealing them might change Sara and Stefan’s perception of their late
son, which is not his aim. One gets the feeling Jonas will take what he has
learned to his own grave. An atmospheric and interesting read, My Brother
and His Brother
is successful on all levels—as art and as entertainment.

And it’ll even look good on your coffee table.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Southern Fried – Rob Rosen (MLR Press)

Buy it now direct from MLR Press.

You can take the boy out of the South, but you evidently
can’t take the South out of the boy. After dalliances in San Francisco (Sparkle),
Hawaii (Hot Lava) and Vegas (Divas Las Vegas), Rosen gets back to
his collards-and-fatback roots in Southern Fried, his latest novel.

Orphaned Trip Jackson’s plantation-owning granny dies,
leaving most of her estate to him as well as a mysterious brother he didn’t
know he had—but the mysteries don’t stop there. How did his parents really
die? What of the senator who shares his newly-found brother’s last name? And
does Billy Ray really have the hottest, saltiest nuts in the state? Only Trip
and his hot stable boy/boyfriend Zeb know for sure, and how they find out makes
for some hot and funny reading.

Rosen has a knack for this light, frothy mix (no, no…not
santorum) of sex, mystery and setting, and this outing is just as satisfying as
the others. Rosen’s characters are always enjoyable, and he puts them through
some very interesting paces here. And while Southern Fried can be
characterized as a beach read, it’s far more accomplished than many entries in
that genre. It never stoops to be cloying or cute, relying on a breakneck sense
of pacing.

But Rosen also has a way with false endings—just when you
think all the loose ends are tied up, someone else makes a confession or
another shot rings out and yet another piece of the puzzle falls into place.
The plots aren’t complex, but Rosen packs them with details that all need to be
ironed out for the kind of smooth ending he’s beginning to be noted for.

So if you’re weary of the holidays and just want a little
time away from the mistletoe, pick up Southern Fried and dig in. But
don’t be surprised if your turkey comes out deep fried.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Beatitude – Larry Closs (Rebel Satori Press)

Buy it now from Rebel Satori Press

Unrequited love comes to us all at one time or another, but
it’s particularly painful when you know from the get-go that it won’t work out.
You forge ahead anyway, leading with your heart despite the warning signs. And
when the letdown happens, the foreknowledge that it was inevitable doesn’t stop
the hurt. That’s the fate of Harry Charity in Larry Closs’s novel Beatitude.

Harry Charity and Jay Bishop are office-mates at a New York
entertainment magazine, but work isn’t all they have in common. Both of them
are big fans of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and the whole Beat Generation
movement. In fact, they bond over the Beat Holy Grail—the original scroll
manuscript of Kerouac’s best known work. The problem? Jay really loves his
fiancee, Zahra. And Harry really loves Jay—just like he loved Matteo, who was
also unattainable but for different reasons.

It would be tempting to make Zahra the villain here, but
Closs wisely avoids this trap, keeping her in the shadows for the first few
chapters and making her appear somewhat inscrutable when she does show up. That
gives her a distance that allows us to focus on Harry and Jay. Likewise,
Harry’s relationship with Matteo isn’t shown in detail until about halfway
through the book. Those flashbacks, however, are all the more revelatory for
the delay. Their absence lets us see the patterns Harry establishes with Jay so
that we can better see the similarities between the two relationships.

One of the differences between them, however, is the danger
factor. Jay is far more laid back and less explosive than Matteo. Their outings
are more intellectual and less fueled by alcohol—still, at the end of the night
Harry finds himself sleeping alone, emotionally unfulfilled by either of the
men he’s fallen in love with. His dalliance with Matteo, though, eventually
reaches an end when he can no longer stand the pressure. He (and we) hope his
connection with Jay will not be severed as gruesomely.

Closs definitely knows his Beats, drawing an interesting
portrait of Allen Ginsberg—including a fictional (I assume) interview with the
poet as well as featuring two previously unpublished Ginsberg pieces. Ginsberg
was a peculiar person; distant and mistrustful or warm and approachable depending
on the minute you caught him in. Having taken one or two of his classes at the
Naropa Institute, I can vouch for the veracity of Closs’s
characterization. 

My only quibble with this interesting and heartfelt
examination of the differences and similarities between friendship and romance
is Harry and Jay’s final telephone conversation—well, the one that ends the
book anyway—in which they address each other as “bro.” A perfectly acceptable
sobriquet these days, I suppose, but one that to my mind, tags their
relationship as more superficial than I think Closs intends. But perhaps that’s
my own prejudice.

Beatitude is a fine, poetic book, full of insight and
sumptuous writing—perfect for meditation on love and friends.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution – Jeanne Cordova (Spinsters Ink)

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First, an anecdote—then, the review. They’ll link up, I promise.

In early 1975, I was a second-semester freshman at the University of Colorado, and I was enthralled by my first lesbian, a marvelous teaching assistant I’ll call Grace. She introduced me to some of my favorite books, taught me much about critical thinking and even gave me the courage to go to my first “gay mixer” at the nascent Gay and Lesbian Club (not yet affiliated with the university).

As one of her three or four acolytes, I was invited to an end-of-semester party at her apartment on the Hill in Boulder. Bellies full of some vegetarian dish, we commenced talking, smoking weed and drinking red wine made by her sister and some friends at the Duck Lake Commune up near Ward. Suddenly, she got up and went into a closet/darkroom off the living room (she was also an amateur photographer) and retrieved a black and white 8×10 of a woman sleeping on the very floral print sofa we were sitting on. The face was familiar but still it took a few minutes for us to realize the napping figure was Patty Hearst, kidnapped newspaper heiress turned revolutionary bank robber and the object of a nationwide manhunt. We were properly awed. And one of us must have been a snitch.

Three days later, our grades had still not been posted. We went to Grace’s office to see why, but she was gone and her office had been cleaned out. So had her apartment. In fact, no one wanted to talk about what had happened to her, and we were warned by everyone we asked not to get too nosy. We finally got grades for the class a year later, but we never saw or heard from Grace again.

Thankfully, L.A. Free Press reporter and Lesbian Tide founder Jeanne Cordova did not meet the same fate, though her testy meetings with American Nazi Party head Joe Tomassi brought the FBI close to her door. Cordova’s memoir When We Were Outlaws captures the politics of the tumultuous lesbian feminist 1970s and casts some fascinating light on Tomassi as well as the Weather Underground, Angela Davis and, yes, Emily Harris of the Symbionese Liberation Army, Patty Hearst’s kidnappers.

Cordova also details the labor strike against the L.A. Gay Community Services Center, including her betrayal by Morris Kight, her political mentor and founder of the GCSC. The relationship between these two is intense, and Cordova pulls no punches when dealing with either her admiration for him or her scorn. This is one of the most interesting relationships in the book—and one of the saddest, especially when one finally realizes what Kight thought of lesbians in the first place. I would have hoped for better from a
gay brother.

But When We Were Outlaws is not all politics and polemic. Cordova’s shrewd observations are most astonishing when she’s looking at herself and her own love life—particularly her stormy relationship with Rachel, a woman she meets at the GCSC. Rachel comes between Cordova and her wife, BeJo, more than any occasional lover of Cordova’s has before, bringing a dynamic tension to their life as well as the book. Painfully honest and brilliantly written, her personal revelations carry even more urgency and importance than her political leanings, never letting us forget that activists have hearts as well as minds. And they sometimes lose both.

In a lesser writer’s hands, the sheer size of the cast involved in the rallies, meetings, marches and strategy sessions would be confusing, but Cordova knows just when to rein it in. She gives the reader an idea of the scope but keeps her eye on the key players at all times so her narrative never bogs down in extraneous detail. A tricky balance, to be sure, but Cordova’s experience in walking tightropes shows in both her pacing and her prose, which is at once journalistically objective and personally relevant.

But nothing encapsulates either Cordova or the times better than the front cover photo—Cordova wearing shades and leaning on a rail, her arms crossed, wearing a leather wrist strap and an armband, her hair wild and unruly, with a name tag on her chest and a Mona Lisa sneer on her lips, clutching a pack of Kools as if the smokes are all that’s keeping her still enough for someone to snap the picture. I kept going back to it whenever I closed the book to absorb what I’d just read. Clearly, a woman not to be fucked with.

But just as clearly, a woman with incredible stories to tell—and we can only hope that When We Were Outlaws is the first of a series of memoirs. If you’re at all interested in activism or our struggle for freedom and equal rights (and you should be), you owe it to yourself to read this and learn.

And if you’re out there, Grace, I’d love to hear from you.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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The House of Wolves – Robert B. McDiarmid (Bear Bones Books)

Buy it now from Lethe Press

The day I’m writing this—December 4th—is my late
partner’s birthday, always a time of bittersweet rememberance for me, as is the
whole holiday season. I try to participate, but my heart simply isn’t in it
anymore. Perhaps this wasn’t the best time to read Robert McDiarmid’s The
House of Wolves
, which sees the two main characters suffering from the same
inestimable loss.

David and Roy have both been damaged by the loss of their
respective partners. Roy immerses himself in teaching fifth grade while David
turns away from the belief system that had sustained both his partner and their
housemates. But the five men who lived with David and his late partner Richard
are more than housemates—they are essential parts of each others social,
physical and emotional beings, taking their philosophy from the Saanich, a
Native American tribe. And they must accept Roy as one of their own if he and
David are to have a successful relationship. 

Make no mistake, this is an interesting read, if for nothing
else than the Native American philosophy and its approach to end of life
matters—highly ritualistic with honor and respect for both the departed and
those remaining, all about animals and spirits and nature and man’s
interconnection with his surroundings. And McDiarmid does an incredible job of
making this complex value system understandable to readers who don’t have prior
experience with that culture.

However, if you’re looking for a traditional storyline with
conflict and resolution, you won’t find it here. We know from the beginning
that the others in the house will accept Roy. In fact, the entire plot is built
around bringing him into the fold, so there is no real threat that the expected
outcome won’t occur. There is no conflict to resolve, but that appears to be
the author’s intent. And that doesn’t mean it’s boring. The focus is on the
process, the ritual, and the examination of a communal, non-monogamous
lifestyle that, in many respects, should be a model for all gay men. Because
when all is said and done, no one is going to look out for us except us.

I wish, though, that McDiarmid would have fleshed out some
of the minor characters in the house a bit more. Roy and David are certainly
well-done, as is Marlin—also a teacher and, perhaps, the one in the house
closest in character to Richard, their late leader. And occasionally (to be
expected when dealing in philosophical matters, I suppose), McDiarmid lapses
into lecturing. Too much telling instead of showing. But those are very minor
quibbles when considering the work as a whole.

Despite my personal poor timing with reading The House of
Wolves
, it’s an absorbing study of Native American culture as well as an
interesting, if slightly idealized, look at the relationships between men.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Jewish Gentle and Other Stories of Gay-Jewish Living – Daniel M. Jaffe (Lethe Press)

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I think of myself as someone who doesn’t like short stories. When I want to scratch the itch to read fiction, I am more likely to pick up a novel by an unknown author than a collection of stories by one I like. After reading Daniel M. Jaffe’s recent collection, Jewish Gentle, however, I realize this is not an accurate self-perception. (I’ll add it to the list.)  It isn’t short stories I dislike, but poorly crafted ones. And Jaffe’s tales are a far cry from the latter.

Jaffe’s collection of stories exploring “gay-Jewish living” covers a wide range of events—from coming out to hooking up, to meeting lovers, to mourning them. His narrators span a wide range of identities—across age, sexual orientation, gender and, in one less successful tale, species. What is most striking about Jaffe’s writing is his capacity to take the most time-worn tableaux and breathe new life into them. With only one or two exceptions was I surprised by where one of his stories went or how it ended; in most cases, by the third or fourth paragraph, I was fairly clear how each narrative was going to unfold. But Jaffe’s gift with language, with voice, with temporality, with suspense, with humor, with character, with mood made each of his tales utterly engaging. Never has the familiar felt as fresh as it does in Jaffe’s stories.

To my eyes, Jaffe’s most successful stories were those that wove together Jewish and gay identity in meaningful, but not heavy-handed ways. For example, “At Blumberg & Fong’s,” my favorite in the collection, brought together the pain of coming out with the politics ofthe Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a burgeoning American-Jewish identity with religious questioning in a way that allowed each dimension of the tale to refract through all the others beautifully. Similarly—and perhaps it struck me since I teach on a college campus and often assist with LGBTQ student programming—the struggle faced by the narrator in “Finding Home” as he juggles attendance at the Hillel meeting and the queer student gathering seemed quite poignant. And, for all its specificity, the story had something universal about it, as it sketched the nervousness that accompanies one’s first public encounter with other queer-identified folk. “Strawberry Mousse” meditated on food regulations and their importance to identity in a captivating manner. And the titular “Jewish Gentle,” which explored a couple’s foray into leather play, focused attention on the complicated relations between ethnic identity and desire by troubling associations between Jewishness and submission.

Jaffe has a particular gift for capturing the complicated emotional currents swirling around coming out. While “Kaddish” seemed a bit too obvious and heavy-handed, “Telling Dad” had just the right mournful air, as well as the hint of compromise that comes with age. “Happy Birthday to . . .” showed off Jaffe’s facility with voice in a stunning fashion. Jaffe also displayed his talent for capturing affect when he evoked AIDS in his stories. Far from being too sentimental, too maudlin or too matter-of-fact, he moves with great care and a gentle touch to reveal the on-going pathos around the disease.

The only place where Jaffe strayed were the stories that seemed to have little connection to gay-Jewish living, but where Jewishness seemed forced in somehow. (As a goyim, I may have missed the subtleties of some stories. Another reader, another reviewer might have a different experience.)  In two stories, for example, the circumcision of a penis marked it as Jewish, and this was the Jewish detail in the story. This was especially unsettling in “Bless the Blue Angel” and “The Four of Us,” given how well-crafted and evocative they were otherwise. These stories would have been much better if Jaffe hadn’t tried to force their relation to the collection’s subtitle. (And given the latter’s allusion to a Freud quote, he might not have needed to follow the strategy he did.)  And, Jaffe certainly knew how to sprinkle details of Jewish identity without marring a tale:  “That Boy This Day,” for example, my second favorite story from the collection—a beautifully rendered, perfectly voiced story about young gay desire and a widow’s attempt to make sense of his marriage to a transgendered man—refers to rabbis and religious customs quite naturally and seamlessly.

Jaffe was also quite smart to sprinkle a handful of very brief vignettes into his collection. These 1-2 page interludes were fully realized stories, but they broke up the pace of the collection as a whole and left me wanting more. And that, I suppose, is the brilliance of a well-rendered collection of short stories like Jewish Gentle. By telling such well-spun tales with such well-crafted characters, Jaffe has left me wanting more . . . but in the best way. I don’t feel cheated of the longer, fuller tale; I feel charmed by these people into whose world I’ve been invited, and wistful that I couldn’t stay longer.

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

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The Abode of Bliss – Alex Jeffers (Lethe Press)

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Jeffers tells us that he began writing these stories in 1994, and through “…fitful intervals…” gave them a “…final burnish in Spring 2011.” Most authors have similar experiences; there is always that work that nags completion, a final burnishing, regardless of how many years it has begged attention, unfinished, but, nevertheless—in the author’s mind, soul—worthy of an end, a pat on the rump that sends it off into the world to stand on its own, revealed, shamelessly exposed to the readers’ scrutiny. I thank Jeffers for sticking with this one through all those years.

This is superb storytelling, shared with a vague presence—not identified as Adam until the last entry—that eloquently and informatively describes the protagonist’s, Ziya’s, travails as a Muslim, growing up in Turkey in a fairly well-to-do family, and destined to fulfill his parent’s plan that he eventually go to Harvard, to America where his mother was educated (a physician).  But America looms, for Ziya, as not the promised land  but, rather—through his sense of history and experience—perhaps a land too recklessly taken for granted by Americans themselves.

Ziya shares with Adam a telling juxtaposition between his sense of himself and his and his country’s history, and that of America and Americans:

“Imagine this, though: imagine Vietnam was not a hot little country halfway ‘round the world but an island just off your coast—in the Gulf of Mexico, say, near Florida. Not even as far as Cuba. Nor are your allies there corrupt little yellow gooks fighting an ideological and economic war against their own people, but our own people, English-speaking Americans… Ah! the metaphor becomes unwieldy, breaks down. These things cannot occur in America. All your wars happen far away—on TV; and you, my good friend (this phrase he said in Turkish; iyi arkadasim), you do not own a televison and could scarcely comprehend my impatience with you, only three years ago, because it would not make sense in your head that my county shares a border with Iraq.

“I saw none of this on TV and so I remember it.

“—Am I speaking to you? Personally? This with an odd, diffident smile. No, no. You are my friend, my good friend, America, I fear is not.”

Ziya, again a Muslim (blue-eyed, like his mother who was “…of the line of Osman. …[a] hapless Ottoman…sultan… The sons of Osman never condescended to impregnate women of their own nation: all their concubines were foreign slaves—pale-skinned, paled-eyed…”), who, even at Harvard shaves his underarm hair and pubes, and still engages in the ablutions necessary prior to the rite of praying to Mekke,  provides a fascinating insight into what I found to be a cursory, even dismissive regret or shame or momentary afterthought about engaging in sex with men. Ziya appears quite ambivalent about any Muslim prohibitions, or teachings, or admonitions with regard to homosexuality. Indeed, it appears Ziya’s upbringing in Turkey gave him a sense of that country’s, that empire’s acceptance of men-on-men, or more precisely, men-on-boy relationships.

Another quote: “My uncle cannot  countenance my refusal to marry and breed but he would not be especially perturbed to know I enjoy fucking other males. That I prefer full-grown men, muscular and hairy, to lissome boys would be puzzling but within the realm of possibility. Men like to fuck, he would say—need to fuck, are made to fuck. Unlike a western man, he’s not disgusted by the simple idea of sex between males. What a man fucks is not so crucial as that he fuck, and I use the word what rather than whom deliberately. What my uncle would not comprehend is that I also enjoy being fucked—and enjoy oral sex, given and received, mutual masturbation, endless necking and foreplay—that orgasm (my own) is nice but not the only goal and pleasant to postpone, that my partner’s orgasm can please me no end. But here I am sounding like an American homosexual—a gay man.

“The notion of sexual reciprocity would not occur to thegeneral run of Turkish men—the idea, you see, is ludicrous. As rule, Turkish men are lousy lays.

“…if women are not available but a boy or ibne is: what the man fucks is immaterial, that he fuck imperative. The pederast, moreover, is a pervert.”

Ziya, in his youth, raped by his uncle, and further used (willingly) by encounters with other men,  discovers notions of man-on-man sex refined by a chance meeting with an old school chum, ĺhsan, who has become—his hair bleached, his clothing seductive to provide the illusion of youth—an ibne, working for a pimp. ĺhsan teaches Ziya that man-on-man sex need not be peremptory, incidental only to just getting your rocks off. He teaches Ziya that sex is so much more than friction.

Ziya, throughout his storytelling to Adam, struggles with Western notions of religion. He was “…perversely amused…” by “The bravado of those [Western religionists] who attempted to represent God Himself…revolted [him].” His first view of Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam, saw him laughing aloud: “Santa Claus in a nightgown!” Indeed, he reveals that, “The first thing I discovered myself to be, at Harvard, was a Muslim.” Then again, his first roommate, an Arab from Kuwait disgusted him. “Turks and Arabs seldom [got] along.” He enjoyed encountering fellow Turks at a mosque in Boston, but became uneasy with encounters “…in the basement meeting room the campus Islamic Society, frequented by fierce-eyed men whose piety made me flinch and women, defiant rather that demure, wearing chic, updated form of yaşmak.” More grating for Ziya, perhaps, was the American notion that all Muslims were Islamic fundamentalists, and all Arabs to boot. “They were not to be argued with, these Americans[,]” who believed, incorrectly, that Turkey and Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania were Arab states where Islamic fundamentalism festered hot and heavy.

Ziya’s observations—from the viewpoint of a confirmed Muslim—of the American psyche, the American way of life are sardonic, so revealing, so intensely insightful. Staying overnight at a friend of his mother’s home, the teenage son stands from the dining table, “…yawned alarmingly and lifted his fists overhead, punching at the ceiling. The t-shirt rode up his concave belly, above blue jeans that were slung deliberately low, making of his high-riding boxer shorts a part of speech, a conjunction.”

“Americans,” Ziya later observes, “men and women both, were always showing themselves off, as if by reflex. Seduction seemed to be the great public pastime, although I couldn’t see that it had any object behind it, was meant to carry through. Appearing desirable was effect and cause both, a closed system.”

I find myself wanting to share so much more of this sublimely eloquent work. I’ve probably shared too much. I want, I suppose, for you, the reader to love this book as much as I did; the storytelling is as engaging as anything I’ve read in a very, very long time. And, too, I hope you (like me) will find the introspection urged by Ziya’s storytelling not so much as an explication of the ugly American, but rather a worthy reflection on who and what we, Americans, have become. Alex Jeffers, through a decade and half, has spun gold here.

Thank you, Alex.

Reviewed by George Seaton

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