Monthly Archives: February 2014

Death in Venice, California – Vinton Rafe McCabe (The Permanent Press)

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At the ripe old age of fifty-seven, the last thing I want to read is about an older man becoming obsessed with a younger man. It’s not that it’s too close to home for me; rather it’s too far from my reality. Oh, they’re lovely to look at, but I think I’m too much a pragmatist to believe anyone that age will be obsessed by me in return. And at this stage of the game, it’s reciprocation or nothing, baby. But this theme is as old in gay literature as it is in straight reads, the granddaddy of them all being Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, splendidly retold and transplanted to sunny California in Vinton Rafe McCabe’s Death in Venice, California.

Well-known poet Jameson Frame departs Manhattan for his annual getaway,. Anxious for a change from his usual cabin hideaway, he opts for Venice, California, where he surrounds himself in luxury at the Hotel des Bains. He sees young underwear model/skateboarder/internet celebrity Chase on the beach and is instantly enamored of him. They get a chance to meet later at a party hosted by beach mavens Vera and Elsa, and Frame’s fate is sealed. He gets a little Botox, a little lipotuck, a little tattoo action. But does he get Chase? Well, yes. And no. However, he does get more than he bargained for.

The parallels between this and Mann’s novella are many, as this is obviously a retelling of that story. However, one huge difference is that Aschenbach and Tadzio never have any contact in the original, whereas Frame and Chase have a great deal of interaction. I’ve been trying to decide whether this is a good difference or a bad one and have come to the conclusion that it’s neither. It’s simply a difference. Their isolation within their own spheres lent a poignancy and a subtlety to Mann’s original that any contact would have undercut (and is lacking here–though I don’t believe McCabe seeks either of those qualities). And I’m not sure today’s reader would be satisfied with the two main characters not interacting. It would have been an interesting experiment to keep those parameters the same, but I’m not certain the result would have been as readable. Because Death in Venice, California is highly readable.

McCabe’s prose is slyly witty and smart, literary without becoming overly esoteric and philosophical without overreaching. Jameson Frame is a wonderfully detailed character, well-observed and fully inhabited. Chase is less inhabited, but he’s also less complicated. His motives are clear. Frame’s are more muddied. However, McCabe works the power imbalance between these two characters in such a way that watching them together is a delight, even though you know Frame is at a distinct disadvantage. The remaining characters are minor and should stay so. This is The Frame and Chase Show, and McCabe never distracts from that. Frame’s visits to the doctor of youth, Magellan, for Botox around the eyes and lipo around the tummy are as funny as the final sex scene with Chase is…well, cannibalistic. I can’t possibly tell you why because I haven’t figured it out yet, but the sex there reminds me of the climax of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer.

My only, admittedly minor, quibbles is that the beach ladies, Elsa and Vera, who throw the party where Frame and Chase meet, never seem to go anywhere once they’re introduced and initiate Frame’s conversion to California culture. They don’t figure prominently in the end, and I thought they would. Less problematic is the piece Frame begins to write during his stay in Venice, “The Waters of Venice, California,” which serves, for a few pages at least, as an interesting alternative viewpoint of the narrative (even though both are from Frame’s point of view). I was disappointed we didn’t get more snippets from this work, and the fact that we didn’t makes me wonder all the more why we got what we did.

But neither of those should detract from what is a genuinely interesting, altogether engrossing takeoff of Death in Venice. Even if you’ve not read Thomas Mann’s original, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this modern update. Highly recommended.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers – Steve Berman (Lethe Press)

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Everyone remembers Grimm’s Fairy Tales–or at least sanitized versions of the stories in that book. And sanitized they were, because the real thing was bloody and cruel enough to prevent rather than induce kids to sleep. Steve Berman must have read them as well. Though his collection of YA stories (many previously anthologized), Red Caps, isn’t quite as disturbing, it certainly doesn’t stint on realism even when disguised as fantasy. But that makes these tales all the more worth telling.

Most of these stories are set against the backdrop of YA life–school, friends, parents–with the exception of the two straight-ahead fantasy pieces, “Thimbleriggery and Fledglings” and “Steeped in Debt to the Chimney-pots” and though a few are no more than character sketches, all have a positive yet unpreachy message. And I must put in a good word about the wonderfully evocative illustrations, which are sweet when necessary and evil as hell when called for.

Berman’s range is impressive here, flying with assurance from the straight-ahead urban legend horror of the lead story “The Harvestbuck” to the oddly-paced, pidgin Broadway-stylised “Gomorrahs of the Deep, a Musical Coming Someday to Off-Broadway.” The latter, which sees a young man and his boyfriend undertaking a presentation of the gay aspects of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as a musical, is perhaps the least successful for me, but goddammit, you have to admire the chutzpah of the idea. And Berman is never afraid to take chances.

Most of his chances pay off. Among the standouts for me are “Cruel Movember,” in which Beau’s boyfriend, Easton, participates in the Movember moustache-fest to raise money for charity contributing to the cancer his father is afflicted with–affecting everything from a black yarn moustache to a Hitler lip-warmer that earns him a suspension, “Bittersweet,” a teary love story that sees Dault and Jerrod through Jerrod’s foot surgery with the real possibility that Jerrod might lose that appendage, “All Smiles,” an escape story turned ugly, and “Persimmon, Teeth, and Boys,” which throws a racial element into the mix along with a somewhat different concept of the Tooth Fairy.

But it’s the last story, “Only Lost Boys are Found,” that best summarizes this collection. Elements of spec-fic are wrapped around a tentative story of love, exposure, and “firsts” to create a truly engaging story. It blends those elements of fantasy and reality into a heady brew whose side effect is that you immediately want to run to the computer to see if you can create something as wonderful. And perhaps you can.

Until then, there’s Red Caps.

 ©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with Timothy J. Lambert and R.D. Cochrane

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Timothy J. Lambert and R.D. Cochrane (Becky) are the editors of the new anthologies, Foolish Hearts and Best Gay Romance 2014. They’re also the editors of the highly acclaimed (here’s proof) anthology, Fool for Love (2009) and the co-authors of Three Fortunes in One Cookie and The Deal. They’re also two of the four authors who comprise Timothy James Beck, penning, so far, five novels including Someone Like You and When You Don’t See Me. Timothy and Becky currently live in Houston, Texas.

Hi! Thanks for doing an interview with Out in Print! I’ll start by asking you for a bunch of your favorites. First, what are your favorite short stories from childhood, including school assignments or independent reading?

Timothy: When I was a little boy I loved Hans Christian Anderson stories, and then I found a series of books on folklore and mythologies of various countries and I loved those as well.

Becky: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” Jesse Stuart’s “Another April,” James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat.”

Which short stories, as adults, do you consider your favorites or are most important to you?

Timothy: Ethan Mordden’s Buddies Cycle is a series of inter-related stories that I’ve always gone back to over and over, because I’m fond of the characters and their relationships to each other. His writing is thought provoking and I’m frankly quite jealous of that. Not only do I enjoy his books, but I tend to study them.

Becky: I didn’t read short stories for a long time and came back to them courtesy of the Men On Men collections, first edited by George Stambolian and then David Bergman. Those stories introduced me to some brilliant writers of gay-themed fiction that spanned all the topics: love, sex, death, coming out, friendship, family. Ethan Mordden’s Buddies books. And I loved Jameson Currier’s collection Dancing on the Moon.

How about settings? I’ve read works of yours set in Manhattan, in Houston, in Mississippi, and in a shopping mall I wish really existed, except for the cart people. But in addition to those, as readers or writers do you have favorite settings for fiction?

Timothy: I can’t say that I do, either as a reader or writer. When I lived in Manhattan it was easy to use it as a setting, and I used to prefer it. But now that I haven’t lived there for over ten years, using it as a setting doesn’t even cross my mind. Using an entirely fictitious setting in Someone Like You was fun. There were no limitations. That was kind of liberating. Going back to Manhattan in When You Don’t See Me after that was a little difficult for me.

Becky: I only care that the setting seems authentic and doesn’t jar me, taking me out of the story. There are a couple of books in particular–one by an extremely successful romance novelist, another by a writer of gay mysteries–that I remember nothing about except their setting mistakes. It’s dicey to set a story in a real city or region if you don’t know it. Even though I am a Southerner who spent all of my formative years in the Southeast, when our editor asked Timothy (who grew up in Maine and also lived in Florida and New York City) and me to take on a new setting when we wrote Three Fortunes in One Cookie, we spent time on the Mississippi coast and got a feel for the geography and the people. It was good to be an outsider looking in, because that’s what Phillip feels like when he goes back there. I think writers–including me–like making up locations because we can do whatever we want. But if you’re going to use a real place, getting the details right best serves your story.

Moving on to your two new anthologies, both books focus on matters of the heart. Are there ways you can differentiate what you were looking to create in Foolish Hearts versus Best Gay Romance?FHCover

Timothy: Both anthologies were romantic in theme, so there wasn’t a vast difference. However, Best Gay Romance is Richard Labonte’s creation, so we were very aware that we were continuing somebody else’s series and did our best to think, “What would Richard do?” We did a call for submissions, which is something we don’t usually do. We tried to find new writers. We tried to go beyond our comfort zone and think of every type of reader and what they might enjoy. Whereas Foolish Hearts is probably our own selfish creation full of stories that we would want to read. Both are really good collections, I believe.

Becky: With Foolish Hearts, like the earlier Fool For Love, we set very few boundaries except to say that if the stories had sex, it had to serve the story (there are plenty of erotic stories out there written by lots of good writers; we want to offer another facet in the world of men with men–there should be all kinds of fiction out there to satisfy all kinds of readers). But if the stories were not romances, that was fine. We just wanted stories that spoke to matters of the heart, whether with humor, pathos, drama, or sweetness. With Best Gay Romance, even if the story didn’t read like a typical romance, there still had to be some romantic element in it.

Andrew Holleran’s story in Foolish Hearts talks about “pre-gay” and “post-gay” literature as a reflection of how life has changed: A man can now propose to another man with the help of a flash mob at Home Depot. Macy’s catalog has a cake with two grooms to advertise their wedding registry. But it seems like the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” philosophy prevailed until not long ago. Were there ways you saw that reflected in the anthologies’ stories you didn’t expect or that readers might find surprising?

Timothy: It used to be that we’d get stories that seemed to be yearning to prove how we’re deserving of equality, how we’re just like everyone else, or to document our history and how we were mistreated. I hate to use the word agenda, but gay fiction definitely had an agenda. So I was surprised by how many stories that were submitted to us had no agenda. They were simply stories about gay people and love with little to prove. It was nice.

Becky: I appreciated the stories about marriage, and those of men in small towns or cities or high schools being honest and open about who they are. I love them because they seem possible. I think it’s important to tell those stories because I know they aren’t reality for everyone. I know teens are bullied, people still lose their jobs and families and friends because they’re gay. I know people are marginalized for more reasons than being gay–because they’re poor or have a disability or because of color or ethnicity–and these stories address all those things. Andrew’s story exposes our fear as writers–is anyone still reading? Is there anything left to say to a culture that feeds on fake reality and celebrity and sensationalism? I think there is. If we’re going to be confronted every day by a world that can be mean and shallow and small, then we need art that reminds us that we can be compassionate and empathetic and big. If I have to live in this world, then I am so grateful for voices like Andrew Holleran’s and these other writers who make me laugh and cry and feel kinship.

To turn that around, were there moments that were painful and made you think, “This is real. Things haven’t yet changed enough”?

Timothy: I don’t think so.

Becky: Georgina Li’s story broke my heart. There’s a moment in Lewis DeSimone’s story that did the same. Several of the stories remind us of what it’s like to be the outsider, the other, even the ones that take us on an adventure or make us laugh.

When thinking of romantic short fiction in specific, what elements do you find are often the most important to make a main character “work” for you as readers or editors?

Timothy: I think as long as the main character is believable then they’ll “work” for me. If they say something that makes me stop and think, Why did he say that? or Why did he do that? then I’ll have a problem with the story. Or, I get really bored with perfection. The impossibly perfect and good looking guy who has everything and does everything right is freaking boring. I like flawed characters. I like discovering why this flawed person is the object of someone’s desire and how they’re going to get together despite those flaws, and how they make it work in the end. That’s more interesting to me.

Becky: I think Tim said it best to me when we were reading submissions and I was struggling with one story’s romantic relationship. “You don’t have to love him,” he said, “you just have to understand why the main character does.” It’s true. I have to believe the characters, and the only way to do that is if the writers believe them. Whenever I read a story that leaves me cold, it’s usually because there’s a lot of plot or setting or cleverness with words, but the characters are one-dimensional or boring. I’m not saying I have to like every character–but I do have to be engaged.

BGR14coverHere are some word associations. Will you let us know their significance to you? Based on two stories in Best Gay Romance 2014, your first word is: Thanksgiving.

Timothy: Stress. Blah. Pass.

Becky: Tim’s answer made me laugh, because Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. We assume you’re referring to Eric Gober’s “Strange Propositions” and Shawn Anniston’s “Thanksgiving.” In one, the narrator suffers a disappointment when his Thanksgiving plans fall through, but that leaves his life open to new possibilities. In the other, an invitation to a family Thanksgiving validates a man’s new romantic relationship. I think writers like setting stories around holidays in general because they stir up a lot of feelings and are a chance to show a lot of characters’ best and worst qualities as they interact.

I bet you’re expecting this one, so here it is: Dogs

Timothy: Dogs are love.

Becky: Yes, they are, and that’s why they’re great in stories about romance. Between the two collections, we get to read about a Disney dog, an injured dog, a service dog, a couple of dogs who bring a new couple together, and two magical dogs. But don’t forget there are also some winged creatures, a cow, a calf, and an annoying mosquito, as well.

How about: Painting

Timothy: Painting is therapy. I don’t claim to be good at it, but I use painting as a form of meditation to clear my mind when the noise inside my head gets to be too much. It helps me focus on story and character development, or if I’m stuck on what’s going to happen next. I can sit down with a canvas and paint, let go, and everything becomes clear after a few hours of manipulating paint. Plus, it’s fun.

Becky: Tim and I both like to paint, and like him, it’s a way to clear my head. Maybe because we paint, we recognized the conflict caused by how the artist in “Foundations” was so visually attuned to his work and so oblivious in his relationship. And I wonder how differently we envision the painting in “Dandelions” that reminded a young man of a love story and made him want a love of his own. I’ll bet every reader will have his or her own mental picture of what that painting looks like.

And if four words isn’t cheating, how about: Vipassana Code of Discipline

Timothy: When I wrote that story I was having an Eat, Pray, Love moment, wanting something more and not knowing what it was, I guess. I started researching meditation retreats and came across the Vipassana meditation and centers that offered retreats where people go to meditate for weeks or months. I wanted to be the sort of person who could do that, but I knew I never would. So I started thinking, “What would it be like?” and it eventually turned into my short story in Foolish Hearts.

Becky: I know it only from Timothy’s short story “Meditation.” I didn’t know if it was real or if he made it up. That has always been one of the fun elements of writing with him. I believe everything is real.

What’s next for you two in terms of writing, editing, or any other goals you’re looking forward to accomplishing?

Timothy: Recently I cofounded a rescue group with some friends called Rescued Pets Movement and it’s leaving me little to no free time for writing or anthology editing. I’ve written down a few ideas for short stories. When one of them is worth working on, I’ll find a way to make time to write, I’m sure. I don’t really plan my writing career. I just make it up as I go along.

Becky: I have no idea. That’s really what you want to hear as an interviewer, right? I have four novels in my head that never seem to make it to paper. I’d like to collaborate on another Timothy James Beck book. I’d love to edit more anthologies, because there’s nothing like finding new writers of good stories or working with established writers and getting to read their stories first.

Thanks to both of you!

Timothy and Becky: Thank you!

Keep up with Becky at beckycochrane.com

And keep up with Timothy at timothyjlambert.com

©  2014  Gavin Atlas

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Careful Flowers – Kieran York (Blue Feather Books, Ltd.)

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Books about family history usually leave me cold, but when they involve murder/suicides, Nazi concentration camps, and the possible dissolution of a relationship, the entertainment value shoots up sharply. And that’s the case with Kieran York (Lambda Literary Award nominee in 2013 for Appointment With a Smile) and her latest novel, Careful Flowers.

Fleur Hamilton, a botanist trying to get a grant to continue a project, is also going through the recent death of her Aunt Golda, a Holocaust survivor who raised Fleur after her parents were killed in a car accident. But a phone call from an old friend of her mother’s convinces Fleur they actually died in a murder/suicide. Who killed who is unclear, but Fleur abandons her project and her somewhat weakened relationship with Abby, her partner of sixteen years, to fly to San Francisco and dig out the truth.

For a relatively short book (less than 200 pages), York attempts to keep a lot of balls in the air as she juggles the mystery about Fleur’s parents, Fleur’s deteriorating relationship with Abby, decoding letters her Aunt Golda wrote in the concentration camp, and a final decision Fleur must make. However, she manages this act quite well, never shorting the reader on any of these accounts. Part of this is due to her timing and ability to weave some of these disparate threads together, but part of her success also comes from creating interesting characters and letting them work through their paces without author interference.

And two of the most interesting characters are never seen, not even in flashback. York does a terrific job of characterizing Fleur’s parents–free-spirited hippieearthmotherchick Maggie and her staid, stern Vietnam vet boyfriend Shane–through reminiscences of Maggie’s friends Gemma Rae and Bernie. Due to the positioning of the bodies, most of their friends assume Shane killed Maggie then turned the gun on himself, but Fleur’s investigation casts some doubt on this theory. Enough for the police to reopen the case. And by the time York works her magic, you won’t be able to believe either one could have shot the other. And therein lies the mystery.

What is not a mystery is the problems Fleur is having in her relationship with Abby. York’s portrait of a disintegrating love is both realistic and sad as she makes us witness to Abby’s unyielding practicality and inability to understand why Fleur has to do this as well as Fleur’s irresponsibility in running off and leaving Abby to do the lion’s share of the work at home. Their telephone conversations are deliciously awkward, enough for the reader to want to scream at both of them, “For Chrissakes, bend a little, willya?”

Less successful for me was the choice Fleur must make once she finds out the truth about her parents’ deaths. I can’t say too much without spoiling the plot, but we know what she’ll do all along, so the decision she makes is not surprising. I would have rather had more of a moral dilemma, more of a reason for her to go the other way. Perhaps even gone the other way. However, I’m a pretty perverse reader who loves characters that defy his expectations. Other readers will applaud Fleur’s choice and appreciate how it’s reinforced by the information found in her Aunt Golda’s letters.

But no matter how you feel about Fleur’s choice, there’s much to like in this interesting, affecting story of one woman’s search for the truth about her past and how it affects her future.

©  2014  Jerry L. Wheeler

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