Monthly Archives: September 2022

The Complicated Calculus (And Cows) of Carl Paulsen – Gary Eldon Peter (Regal House Publishing)

I think I need to read more sweet stories. The current political climate has sharpened my cynicism to an almost painful point, honed daily on the news. So, when I find stories that alleviate that feeling, I don’t believe them at first. Where’s the catch? I wonder. When’s the twist coming? They’re not gonna kill the dog, are they? There are no dogs in the Gary Eldon Peter YA release, The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen, but the titular cows are never really in danger. It’s a gentle, earnest tale worth reading.

Carl Paulsen is a fifteen-year-old son of a new, struggling dairy farmer in southern Minnesota, but his mother’s recent death isn’t his only problem. He also has a crush on also newly arrived city boy Andy Olnan who may or not feel the same way. Meanwhile, Carl’s father is not settling well into being a dairy farmer. The farm was a legacy from his late wife, who wanted to live there before she died. He and Carl are trying hard to honor her wishes, but it just isn’t working. Amidst the clashes with his father and mixed signals from Andy, Carl learns how to survive in a world without certainty.

This is a quiet book. It doesn’t have an edge or feature a bunch of screaming arguments or have some sort of daring element. That’s not to say it’s boring or has no conflict, but the major conflict of Carl’s father and the farm is handled from a place of mutual love and caring, so it’s less harsh but no less involving. The is-he-or-isn’t-he situation with Andy has more teenage angst to be sure, but even that has been dialed back. It’s a book whose virtues are solid and sure, and although the ending is happy, its calm wobble keeps you just off-balance enough to make the ride interesting.

The maternal influence in Carl’s life is one of two minor female characters appearing here. Annie is a girl his father hires to run the household and Cathy becomes Carl’s study partner and best friend and both of them try to keep Carl out of trouble, especially when he and Andy smoke pot (even these scenes are G-rated). Both of the girls, and indeed the whole book, are somewhat quirky yet wholesome. And that’s not a bad thing.

So, The Complicated Calculus (And Cows) Of Carl Paulsen pours you a glass of milk and sits you down in front of a plate of cookies to tell you its story, but it keeps you entertained down to the last crumb.


© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Conversation with Jim Grimsley

Special to Out in Print

from Gavin Atlas

Jim Grimsley was born in North Carolina and educated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published short stories and essays in various quarterlies, including DoubleTake, New Orleans Review, Carolina Quarterly, The New Virginia Review, The LA Times, and The New York Times Book Review. Jim’s first novel, Winter Birds, was published by Algonquin Books in 1994 and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for best first novel from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His other novels include Dream Boy, Kirith Kirin, and My Drowning. He has also published a collection of plays and a memoir, How I Shed My Skin. His body of work as a prose writer and playwright was awarded the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005. For twenty years, he taught writing at Emory University in Atlanta. His newest novel is The Dove in the Belly.

GA: Hi, Jim!  Thank you so much for agreeing to the interview!  To start, I loved The Dove in the Belly.  One thing that surprised me is it’s considered YA yet the characters are rising college seniors.  However, I know it’s considered normal for younger readers to “read up”.  So, are you finding that a number of your readers are high school age or younger?  What kind of feedback, if any, have you received from young people?

JG: The response that I’ve seen has been positive, sometimes overwhelmingly so, though it’s early days yet. It’s also hard to tell with online reviews whether the person writing is the age of the target audience, so I can’t really answer the question with much authority. But I shaped the book to be felt, so that readers who want to open themselves to the story can live inside it and feel it as if it happened, and my purpose in doing that was to make an experience that, especially for a young reader, would be hopeful and affirming in the end. I want young gay readers to be able to see themselves in this book, to see what their past might have been like if they had been born earlier, to understand this bit of history.

GA: I’m pretty sure I can answer this question since I’ve read the book, but for the uninitiated, could you explain your title?

JG: For me the title evokes the feeling of love, that warmth that resides in the belly, which is the seat of feelings. I always experience emotions in my core, whether they be love, fear, anxiety, whatever. The image of the dove as a bearer of peace, the similarity of “dove” to the word “love,” contribute to the image. The phrase is drawn from a Wallace Stevens poem about the illusory nature of appearances, and that, for me, echoed the fact that the differences between Ronny and Ben are mostly illusion, and that when they come together they form a core around which they can build their lives, at least for a while.

GA: I don’t want to give away too much, but there are two motherly figures whose lives affect the main characters significantly.  Was there anything specific that led to that choice?

JG: Most choices in writing, for me at least, begin as impulses and evolve as the story grows. In the case of Miss Dee, the boardinghouse owner, she is based directly on the owner of a boardinghouse I lived in for one summer during my Chapel Hill years. She’d lived a hard, long life, had fought to keep her home, and lived her days surrounded by college boys who helped her to stay financially afloat. We developed a small friendship and liked each other very much. Something about her presence touched me and stayed with me through the years, so that when I decided to set a novel in a boardinghouse parallel to hers, I had to put her in it because she was such a vivid part of the experience. The importance of Ben’s mother to the story grew out of the need to soften Ben’s rough edges, to show that the surface of him was not the whole story of him. And the loss of the two women is what ultimately transforms Ben and Ronny’s relationship into something that they both want to endure. The loss of Ben’s mother breaks them apart and the loss of Miss Dee brings them back together. That’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s mostly true.

GA: Conversely, the main character, Ronny, has a mother, Thelma, “with as many surnames as a soap opera heroine.”  She fascinates me though I’m not sure I’d want to know her in real life.  Do you have a background for her in your head explaining what made her the way she is?  Also, in what ways do you think her idiosyncrasies formed Ronny’s personality?

JG: Thelma has to be the kind of mother who would pack up and leave her son without a place to live; that was part of the first impulse of the novel and shaped who she became. Since he’s at college she figures he is able to take care of himself now, and she’s right, of course. Ronny might wish she was a bit more nurturing and such, but he knows her very well, as she knows him. She’s a complicated person, deeply loving as a mother but not the type of woman who put her own needs second to her child’s. I don’t think that means that she was neglectful; Ronny always had a roof over his head. The worst he has had to endure is her need for a man on which to focus her life. She was scarred by the fact that she married a man who turned out to be gay and had to rebuild herself. I thought of her as lovingly selfish and self-centered, but not in a cruel way. She knows that Ronny is strong and relies on him to take care of himself, and she probably has always done that. The fact that she loved her son but relied on his strength even as a child is what shaped him into the person he has become, quiet and determined, maybe a bit conniving, even, where his own happiness is concerned. He sees Ben and goes after him. I admired that about Ronny very much.

GA: Your story takes place in the 70s, and I saw an author note revealing how important setting and period accuracy was to you.  If it’s okay to ask, how close to autobiographical is this work?  Did you know anyone like your jock character, Ben?  

JG: That’s a fraught question; one of my limitations as a writer is that, in a realistic novel (as opposed to science fiction or fantasy) I need to write something that is very close to my own life, something that I know inside out. So there are many elements of autobiographicality, to make up a word, in this books, and it’s certainly what I wish had happened to me in college. But I am far more solitary as a person than Ronny is. I think Ronny is like his mother and needs a relationship. That’s not really me; I’m a lifelong singleton.

GA: Frankly, I have a sense there are many colleges and many parts of the country where a relationship between a clearly gay “nerd” like Ronny and a jock identifying as straight like Ben would be as complicated and frustrating today as it was in the 70s.  But what is your feeling about that? 

JG: I think it’s interesting that people say Ben identifies as straight; in the book it’s Ronny who identifies him that way. Ben himself refuses to say who or what he is. And Ben has had a sexual encounter with a boy before. So I think he understands that there is something in his sexuality that’s not fixed. When he understands what Ronny wants from him, he goes where his attractions take him, without much angst about it. He’s concerned not to be found out in terms of his relationship with Ronny, of course, but that’s understandable, and Ronny is the same way. I think it’s clear that being a gay or bisexual football player would be very complicated today. We’re only just at a point where a gay NFL athlete can be public, and there haven’t been more than a handful who have done so.

GA: Just so you know, my parents went to Duke, and as you are a UNC Tarheel, my understanding is that makes us lifelong enemies.  First, I extend a hug peace offering.  Second, how much of UNC’s culture and environment made you who you are?  How do you feel about the school’s relationship with the LGBTQ+ community then and today?

JG: I return your hug. I almost went to Duke myself; I had a scholarship there but had always dreamed of being at Chapel Hill. My years at Chapel Hill were electric; I finally understood that brains had a value, that writing could be a means of doing something more than amusing myself. I had a stable, peaceful life for the first time. There’s no way to measure what the university gave me. I will always be grateful for that. During my years there the Carolina Gay Association was formed and came into being; this was at a time when I had come out to only a handful of people, and I was astonished at the notion that there was a parallel world of people like me. But I never thought much about what the school thought of me being gay and didn’t ask for any particular nurture from that. So I don’t really have an opinion to express about your latter question.

GA: I’m not sure this is fair to ask, but when thinking about all your works, are there any characters or stories you love the most?  Or that you think about the most?

JG: At the moment, this book is the one I love the most and these are the characters that matter to me. I like to think about Ben and Ronny and how long they might be together. I love all my books, but I can’t deny that Winter Birds and Dream Boy are the most special to me. They came first, and when I was publishing those books everything seemed possible.

GA: You’ve been interviewed many times.  Is there a question you’ve never been asked that you’ve always wanted to be asked?  And if so, could you answer it? 

JG: No one has ever asked me about my favorite color, which is green.

GA: And >>poof<< here’s your genie question:   If you had one wish with the caveats that you’re not allowed to ask for unlimited wishes or world peace, what might you wish for? 

JG: You and your tricky legalistic restrictions! The wish that’s deepest in my heart at the moment is that I continue to love writing as much as I always have. Sometimes these days I feel as if I could let it go. Aging is as harsh as Bette Davis said. But even when I have doubts about myself or my viability or my writing, I still find myself coming back to the page and trying to make something happen there. So let’s just say that my wish is that I publish another book, and then we’ll see what else there is.

GA: Is there anything you’re hoping to work on or accomplish next?   Any travel or other goals you’re looking forward to?

JG: I want to return to my fantasy world and finish that. By this I mean the world of the Hormling novels and Kirith Kirin. I have another substantial volume in that universe but there’s a lot more work to do.

GA: Thank you so much, Jim!

More information about Jim Grimsley and his books can be found at

Author Photo by Kay Hinton

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Paul’s Cat – Jameson Currier (Chelsea Station Editions)

In an interesting occurrence of synchronicity, this past weekend I agreed to cat-sit for a couple of friends, and once ensconced in their apartment, I opened up Paul’s Cat by Jameson Currier, which ostensibly begins with Paul’s friend Jay arriving at Paul’s apartment to care for Paul’s cat. Paul’s cat escapes at once, and Jay must follow it, first down six flights of stairs to the basement laundry room. Of course nothing can be taken at face value: the “laundry room” in the basement is filled with drag queens preparing for a show. Paul’s cat then leads Jay on a merry chase: across the stage of an empty theater, outside and back into a theater lobby with a fortune teller, into a gym locker room, through a dance club (with VIP room), down a hallway before a set of doors guarded by an old man, across a pool, into a hospital, until finally reappearing on the roof of Paul’s apartment building. Along the way, the people that Jay meets continually prod him with questions, or offer him a choice (“Future or fortune?” “Pleasure or knowledge?” “Sobbing or screaming?”) while evading his own questions.

My first thought (led on by Jay’s initial descent to the basement, later reinforced by ending on the roof) was that Paul’s cat was going to lead Jay through some queer underworld. The idea of guided tours of the afterlife/other world is millennia old, going back to Classical Antiquity and even earlier. Jay does visit nine locales (similar to the nine circles of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy), but none of them deal specifically with punishment or reward. Instead of considering the possibilities of the afterlife, Jay’s journey is a trip into his past, down Memory Lane, although there seems very little nostalgic about this tour.

While I won’t say that his journey is archetypal, Jay’s recollection of his life takes him through many places familiar to Gay men: the drag show, the theater, the gym, the dance club; and many Gay Men of a Certain Age will remember many bedside vigils in the hospital. The introspective quality of Jay’s excursion, however, raises the possibility that Paul has died. Except that Paul himself does not appear in Jay’s musings about the past: the characters that Jay meets force him to focus on his own responses to situations in his past, questioning his life choices. Paul may be absent from Jay’s memories, but Jay continually contrasts his own reactions to the (more confident, more daring) responses that he presumes Paul would have given. (But then, if Paul is not a key figure in Jay’s memories, how is it that Jay is caring for his cat? How did they meet? Based upon what we learn about Jay, they apparently are not exes-become-friends, perhaps tricks-become-friends?)

Even with his cat acting as a catalyst for this journey, Paul is clearly incidental to Jay’s dream vision. Moreover, Jay’s journey is highly personal, the typical queer settings notwithstanding. And, as one can see, despite its short length, Currier’s story provokes numerous questions for the reader, just as it does for Jay. For all that I read this story within an hour, I find myself still thinking about it.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Dead Letters from Paradise – Ann McMan (Bywater Books)

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Bywater Books

I was looking forward to this because I loved Beowulf for Cretins so much (the title alone makes me smile), and I love the concept of finding old letters. As usual, McMan more than hits it out of the park, creating some vibrant characters she pushes through an intriguing mystery involving herb gardens, bigotry, and a coming out of sorts.

Esther Jane “E.J.” Cloud manages the Dead Letter Office in Winston-Salem NC along with her friend, Lottie. E.J. has a very quiet existence, living in her family’s Old Salem house and volunteering at the town’s communal medicinal herb garden. Her peaceful existence, however, comes to an end with the discover of a cache of undeliverable letters from the nearby town of Paradise to a fictional recipient in care of the herb garden. With the help of her new neighbor, ten-year-old Harriet (“Harrie”), E.J. tries to discover the identity of the sender while pretending not to get caught up in the passionate content, which brings up some unsettling feelings she’s always had for women. And this all happens against the background of 1960s North Carolina, its prejudices and bigotry on full display.

McMan plays to her strengths in this, her thirteenth novel. Her main characters are independent and fiercely imperturbable women who somehow become perturbed, and E.J. certainly qualifies. But she bonds with Harrie over Postum and racial harmony. I’ve often heard it said that people come into each other’s lives for a reason, and that’s certainly the case here as E.J. provides latchkey kid Harrie with stability and Harrie pays her back with adventure. They both learn and grow, which is exactly what characters should do. And McMan makes it look easy.

Neighbor Fay Marian and co-worker Lottie are excellent support characters and sounding boards, especially Lottie, whose nephew is involved in a pivotal lunch counter incident with Harrie. I’m not going to spoil anything, but watch this scene carefully. It’s short and dramatic but drama-free. Its power comes from its presentation as an everyday incident, but one that clearly marks both Harrie and E.J. This is a milieu McMan is obviously familiar with, because she nails both the attitude and the consequences with ease.

Where’s the romance, you ask? Well, certainly there’s a romance. But here as well as Beowulf for Cretins and The Big Tow, the other McMan books I’ve read, the romance is less the point than creating the possibility of romance, of breaking someone far enough out of their routine to accept happiness they wouldn’t ordinarily dare to experience. And watching her take her characters through those changes is always an interesting ride, be it with a towing service, a college campus, or a dead letter office.

Dead Letters from Paradise is good fun from one of our finest authors. Heartily recommended!


© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

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