Monthly Archives: June 2015

The One That Got Away – Carol Rosenfeld (Bywater Books)

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I have a soft spot for debut novels. There’s something wonderful about an author stretching his or her wings and really giving the long form a go for the first time. As a reader, I get almost as exhilarated as the writer. So, I was prepared to enjoy short fiction author and poet Carol Rosenfeld’s first novel, The One That Got Away, but I wasn’t prepared for how wise and outrageously funny it is. Rosenfeld promises much, and she delivers in every way.

Middle-aged wedding consultant Bambi Devine (aka B.D.) has recently come out to herself and her friends, but she’s having some difficulty adjusting to life inside the rainbow. The girl of her dreams, Bridget McKnight, is already in a relationship with Natalie Lamont. But Natalie is also involved in a hot and heavy friendship with fellow mushroom enthusiast, power dyke, and feminist author Maxine Huff. Is their friendship platonic or something more? If it’s something more, does that mean B.D. stands a chance with Bridget? And where does that leave private investigator Angel, who pursues B.D. almost as hotly as B.D. does Natalie? Like all good clickbait stories, I’ll just say ‘the answer will astonish you.’

From B.D.’s gay drag queen boss Eduardo to her own lovable schlub schtick, The One That Got Away is obviously a comic novel imbued with a wonderful sense of irony and any number of winking asides skewering the lesbian community in New York City. B.D. is a tremendous point of view character, full of wit and self-deprecation, and Rosenfeld writes her with a glorious eye for detail. Consider her reaction to her friends, Annalise and Ellen, running lines from the film Desert Hearts, a film B.D. hasn’t seen:

In fact, I was watching girl-on-girl porn films. They had titles like “Girls Night Out, Vol. 34” and featured actresses with names like Kittie Hawk and Goldie Locks. The women had tousled blonde hair and long polished nails that made me a little anxious. Occasionally, their technique seemed hampered by glances up at the camera, as if to say, “How am I doing?” But my body wasn’t a film critic. I wasn’t sure whether or not to share this, because I hadn’t figured out if Annalise and Ellen were erotic lesbians or pornographic lesbians. As with mushrooms, misidentification could have grave consequences.

As funny as The One That Got Away is, however, the book turns on a totally unforeseen plot development that gives the last few chapters a poignancy and depth I never expected from a work amusing enough to make me laugh out loud in an airplane. This shift in mood elevates the novel from “good” to “stunning,” and Rosenfeld negotiates this emotional minefield with an assured ease that makes it look like a cakewalk.

In short, Carol Rosenfeld’s The One That Got Away is one of the best debut novels I’ve read since ‘Nathan Burgoine’s Light, which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is this book. The curse is that it’s going to be tough to follow.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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The Glittering World – Robert Levy (Gallery Books)

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One summer—maybe this one—four people leave New York City for Nova Scotia:  Michael “Blue” Whitley, a restauranteur heavily in debt to the mob; Elisa, his best friend; Jason Howard, her husband, a former broker, now a therapist; and Gabriel Peck, Blue’s co-worker and current love interest.  Blue is returning to Starling Cove, site of a former hippie commune and where he spent his early childhood, which he barely remembers, to sell the house he inherited from his grandmother; the others join him for a week of vacation.

Their visit soon becomes anything but relaxing.  Starling Cove is full of secrets, and while Blue may not remember his prior time there, he is still remembered by some of the older residents that have remained.  Gradually, memories from Blue’s past return to his consciousness, including the time, when he was a child of five, that he went missing for weeks in the woods.  And then he goes missing again—but this time Elisa disappears as well.

As Jason and Gabe struggle to locate Blue and Elisa, they simultaneously must grapple with the mystery of Blue’s first disappearance.  By turns they are aided and/or hindered by the inhabitants of Starling Cove, who distrust outsiders with their secrets—or are disbelieved by the rational Jason when they do open up.  For, if the old-time residents of the Cove are to be believed, Blue and Elisa have been Taken by the Other Kind, for purposes that are far from benign.

Complicating this mystery are all the secrets that the four newcomers are keeping from each other.  While Blue is forced to confront secrets about his blood family, his family of choice—Elisa, Jason, and Gabe—must each confront their own broken family histories.  Jason especially is forced to confront the truth of Elisa’s relationship with Blue, a relationship that, because of its long history, he can never fully supplant.  The theme of families we are born into versus the families we create will resonate with many GLBT readers, but not content to leave it at that, Levy complicates this theme:  the protagonists often feel alienation from both their blood families and their families of choice.  Finding one’s “true” family—be it by blood, marriage, or choice—is no guarantee of acceptance.

Slowly the mystery and horror unfold, as each of the four protagonists provides their own history to the overall narrative.  Part mystery, part dark fantasy, and mostly pschological thriller, The Glittering World is a terrifying debut by Robert Levy, who takes everything you think you know about the Fae, the Other Kind, the “People of Peace,” and changelings, and Cranks It Up To Eleven.  These Sidhe are not some playfully mischevious, amoral, decadent, UnSeelie Court who amuse themselves by toying with humans; they are fully and truly alien, in every sense of the word.  You have been warned.

© 2015 Keith John Glaeske

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Nights at Rizzoli – Felice Picano (OR Books)

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Conversations with Felice Picano, should you be lucky enough to have one, are always fascinating experiences because you never know who will show up in them. The guy knows everyone. On both coasts. So, as much as I enjoy reading his fiction, I really love reading his recollections of his time in New York City. And his latest, Nights at Rizzoli, is a gem from start to finish.

Rizzoli, for those who don’t know, is–or was–a Fifth Avenue bookstore which was a magnet for book-buying celebrities. Picano worked there as a sales clerk beginning in the early 1970’s, meeting such luminaries as Maria Callas, Jerome Robbins, Elton John, Jackie Onassis, Salvador Dali, S.J. Perelman, Mick Jagger, Richard Thomas (remember him?), and Rose Kennedy, in one of the most memorable encounters in the book.

Lest I mischaracterize the book, however, this is not just a collection of  anecdotes–though Felice has many of those. Instead, it’s a series of finely-drawn cameos set among the large backdrop of New York City in the 1970’s. This was a time of great struggle and immense learning. His brush caresses the intellectual and sexual climate of the times, which was heady in ways NYC hadn’t been before and certainly not since. Although it’s nearly a cliche–okay, definitely a cliche–the city, along with Felice himself, are the two constant characters in this book. They are the protagonist and the antagonist, though I’ll leave it to you to decide who is who.

Picano was not the only employee of Rizzoli, though, and his characterizations of his fellow employees–the manager, Mr. M, and head clerk Antonio in particular–are wonderful example of the fine detailing he embellishes his people with. They jump out of the book at you, nearly overshadowing the celebrities they all serve. By the end of the book, you know them as well as if you’d worked with them yourself.

Nights at Rizzoli is perfectly crafted memoir, as evocative of the time in which it is set as it is of the celebrities which populate it. Highly recommended.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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Extraordinary Adventures of Mullah Nasruddin – Ron J. Suresha (Lethe Press)

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In 2011, Ron Suresha published The Uncommon Sense of the Immortal Mullah Nasruddin (also from Lethe Press; revised 2013), a collection of more than 365 anecdotes starring the Persian/Turkish wise fool known variously as Mullah (or Sheikh) Nasruddin, Nasreddin Hoca, Djuha, Joha, Hodja, among other aliases.  Now he has collected 257 additional tales, many translated into English for the first time, for a companion volume entitled Extraordinary Adventures of Mullah Nasruddin.  Suresha’s second collection of Mullah Nasruddin lore, however, is more than a mere continuation of the tales found in the first volume, as explained by the subtitle:  Naughty, unexpurgated tales of the beloved wise fool from the Middle and Far East.  Here, then, are the tales that have been expunged from collections of modern translations of Mullah Nasruddin, due to the scatological, ethnic, racial, and/or sexist humor contained therein.  Below are two short examples:

One afternoon, Mullah Nasruddin was sitting peaceably on a riverbank along the Akşehir River, contemplating the infinite glory of God’s creation.  A stranger approached the stream from the other bank.  After looking around a bit, the fellow noticed Nasruddin.  He waved his arms and shouted, “Hey there, Mullah!  Excuse me—please tell me, how do I get across the river?”  Without looking up, Nasruddin shouted back, “You are across!” (“Two Sides of a River,” page 24)

One very hot day at the chai shop, Mullah and the wags were discussing distant lands.  Faik declared, “There are some places where it is so hot that the most people go around completely naked.”  Nasruddin asked, “Without clothes, how in the world do they tell the women from the men?” (“Hot Coutoure,” page 40)

Admittedly, these two short examples are not particularly racy; still, they demonstrate one of the Mullah’s ubiquitous characteristics, namely, his unique perspective, which allows him to view the world differently than his contemporaries.  For this reason his stories are so popular:  through looking at the world differently one may attain some measure of wisdom.  In Suresha’s own words:  “…by opening the listener’s heart with laughter, the tales create a space for wisdom to enter.

Suresha organizes his second collection into seven parts, as he did his first collection (traditionally, Mullah stories are recited in groups of seven).  His earlier collection was organized roughly chronologically, from Nasruddin as child to venerable adult, whereas each section here is grouped thematically:  Mullah’s Amazing Adventures; The Young Nasruddin; Extra Marital Affairs; Meet the Nasruddins; Donkey Tales & Animal Crackers; Adventures around the Village; and Travels with the Mullah.  Among the taboo themes within these short vignettes are incest (the adolescent Nasruddin trying to bed his beautiful stepmother), extra-marital sex (as practiced by both Nasruddin and his wife Fatima), and bestiality (apparently Nasruddin’s “beloved donkey” Karakacan is exactly that).  However, very few deal with overt homosexuality or bisexuality.  Suresha admits in his introduction that these stories were the most difficult for him to find; indeed, there are far more stories about Nasruddin and his “beloved donkey.”

Naturally, this collection will appeal to any reader who appreciates a good fart joke or merkin story, but it will also prove valuable to students of folklore and/or Islamic culture; storytellers; and seekers of wisdom.  To this end, Suresha includes a bibliographical list of his sources, and a glossary of terms that might be unknown to the general reader, for those who might be inspired to follow the Mullah Nasruddin, perched sitting backwards upon his beloved donkey.

© 2015 Keith John Glaeske

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