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Excuse Me While I Slip Into Someone More Comfortable – Eric Poole (RosettaBooks)

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As I’ve said before and will likely say again, memoir is a tricky proposition. Celebrity memoir is usually smug and self-serving, sometimes to the point of changing my view of said celebrity (are you listening, Art Garfunkel?). Non-celebrity memoir? Well, you’d better have had an interesting life. Some of that changes when one has something in common with the memoirist, and that’s certainly true of gay authors for me. It helps when the writing is sharp and the characters are focused, and that’s what saves Eric Poole’s Excuse Me While I Slip Into Someone More Comfortable.

Eric Poole is determined to be Somebody. He just doesn’t know who. Or how. But he’s certain he’s destined for fame and fortune as a trumpet player…or an actor…or a singer…or a fashion designer…or a dancer…or a writer. But advertising? Well, it’s sort of writing. Assisting him in his search for the perfect occupation are his ultra-religious parents and a rotating cast of girlfriends along with his one, out gay friend, Kurt. Patient Kurt, who knows Eric isn’t Tommy Tune…or Barry Manilow…or Halston…but is gay.

Reviewing memoir is just like reviewing someone’s life. You really can’t address character motivation or absurdity (or absence) of plot. You can’t carp about choices or discuss issues with what the author does or doesn’t do with his life. It’s easier with a memoir like Dennis Milam Bensie’s Thirty Years a Dresser, which depends on anecdotes about others. Poole’s book is all about his struggle to reconcile himself with his concept of himself and, at times, is as frustrating as I’m sure that was in real life. In that, Poole is quite successful. He portrays himself as clueless, a man backing painfully into life. His heartbreak is evident, but he can’t see it. The reader must do that for him.

Poole’s insistence on cleaving so closely to reality is both nervy and unnerving. He doesn’t comment on his predicaments as one looking back but as one in the throes of them, which is alternately comforting and uncomfortable. His prose is, as said before, sharp and funny. He makes more judgments about himself than his cast of characters, and he manages, in terms of plot, to have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. And the ending is absolutely perfect.

Excuse Me While I Slip Into Someone More Comfortable is a well-written, solid memoir that takes some chances and succeeds by virtue of some excellent writing and genuinely funny moments.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Alias – Cari Hunter (Bold Strokes Books)

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Everything seems so transient these days. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, but nothing has a sense of permanence about it–politics, prevailing wisdom, common sense… Candy bars are smaller, Twinkies now have expiration dates, and even Archway windmill cookies don’t have almond slices on them anymore. But Cari Hunter’s novels give you a kick as dependable as the sunrise and twice as exciting. Her latest, Alias, is no exception.

In the aftermath of a car crash on a Welsh mountain road, one woman lies dead. The driver is alive, but she has no idea who she or the dead woman is. All she has to go on is an unfamiliar bus pass with her picture and a name she doesn’t recognize. She doesn’t even know what she was doing in a rented car in Wales. With the assistance of Welsh detective Bronwen Pryce, she unravels a mystery that may end up threatening both their lives.

Hunter’s “Dark Peak” series is fast-paced and action-packed, and I wondered how she’d be away from those characters, and I can say she’s still bloody marvelous. The opening sequence with (I’ll use her bus pass name) Rebecca trying to escape from the wreckage with a dead woman beside her drops the reader into a nightmarish world you’re not allowed to leave. Hunter expertly ratchets up the tension, only deflating it long enough for the reader to breathe before another break-in or revelation happens. To say she has an aptitude for action scenes would be understating the case tremendously. The maddening thing about writing a review for this particular book is that I can’t divulge many details or risk spoiling the plot, thereby forcing Hunter to (rightly) send a goon squad after me.

Instead, let me talk about how this doesn’t pander to an American audience. It’s unashamedly British/Welsh, with no explanation for some of the slang except context–which is perfectly fine by me. That was one of the chief virtues, among many others, of A Quiet Death from last year. I can figure out pretty well what “nowty” means. But as interesting as the slang is, the meat of Alias is all in the tension and suspense. The final revelation of who is behind Rebecca’s car crash is jarring and unexpected, but once I started thinking about it, the puzzle pieces fit together beautifully.

Alias, then, is one of Hunter’s best rides–a rollercoaster with some mean peaks, some wicked drops, and left turns when you least expect them. Highly recommended, and I’m not just being nowty.

JW

© 2018, Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

 

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Yeled Tov – Daniel M. Jaffe (Lethe Press)

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As I started to write this review, I learned that Philip Roth had died. I remembered reading Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus years ago, though I haven’t revisited them in a number of years. And it struck me certain parallels existed between Roth and Daniel M. Jaffe. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Jaffe the gay Philip Roth because that’s an awful burden to place on any author’s shoulders, and it’s not exactly correct. However, some of the same themes exist in their work, especially the exploration of the “promiscuous instincts” Roth has written about in numerous essays. Those instincts are on full display in Jaffe’s latest work, Yeled Tov.

More than anything, Jake Stein wants to be a “good boy” (yeled tov), but he has much to contend with. He lusts after men at shul. He lusts after the guy who plays Peter Van Daan in his high school’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank. He lusts after his childhood friend, Dave. He lusts after his college roommate, Ted. He’s a bundle of lust, which is what he tries to explain to God when he talks to him. But God isn’t exactly sympathetic, and dates with nice Jewish girls don’t help much. All this tsuris and mishegas has to have some long-term consequences, leading Jake to a very bad decision. Suicide.

Okay, that’s not as much a spoiler as you might think. Jaffe doesn’t leave Jake with many other options, and though it wasn’t telegraphed, it was certainly the end of a logical progression. But the real import of this novel is in Jake’s journey and how he gets to that end. The examination of his “promiscuous instincts” aren’t uniquely Jewish or uniquely gay, but those two spins on the concept give the events here a universality I really enjoyed. Gay men and women aren’t as free to act on those instincts as their straight counterparts, and the additional barrier of trying to adhere to the teachings of the Torah only complicates the matter.

And Jake is a yeled tov. Sure, he lusts and gives in to that lust but he pays for it in guilt, and he never puts the moves on any object of his lust. He not only doesn’t want to be found out, but he doesn’t want to add to their burdens by making them reject him. Early on, his father gives him a sage piece of advice, albeit about women: “Whatever you do, never hurt the girl.” Jake has internalized this message, ensuring that he will be a yeled tov no matter who or how he loves. He just hasn’t realized it.

Jaffe takes on Jake’s story with a keen eye for detail and a good ear for dialogue. Jake’s discussions with God are very well done, and the one near the end of the book will bring a tear to your eye as both he and God come to peace with each other. It did mine, anyway. And I’m an atheist.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

 

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Inhospitable – Marshall Moore (Camphor Press)

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I’m a huge fan of Marshall Moore’s work. When I heard he had a new novel called Inhospitable coming out soon, I had to get the ARC. I had no idea what it was about, and I don’t even think it had a cover then, but it went on my Kindle the second I got it. As the “A” in ARC stands for “advance,” I knew it would be a bit before it released, so I reluctantly put it aside, met some deadlines and read a few pressing books I’d promised reviews of, but this was always at the back of my mind. As serendipity would have it, I picked it up and finished it the very day it was available. And I was not disappointed.

Lena Haze and her Eurasian husband, Marcus, are expats newly arrived in Hong Kong from North Carolina. Marcus has inherited a property in the heart of the city but the can’t sell it due to the terms of the inheritance. He stays behind to pack up their American life and sends Lena to Hong Kong to oversee the renovation and turn it into a boutique hotel. She begins the project with the help of Isaac, the gay son of a local couple who are investing in the hotel. Her organizational skills, however, are nothing compared for her talent for sensing and seeing ghosts. As Isaac tells her, all buildings in Hong Kong are haunted, and she finds this true. However, her building has a more malignant, dangerous spirit than most. Moreover, there’s a reason for that. And she has to find out what it is to protect not only their investment, but their lives.

No one, and I mean no one, does disconnect and urban anomie better than Moore. He’s proven this both in short stories and his novels, Bitter Orange and An Ideal for Living, but the malevolence he conjures up in Inhospitable is at the forefront rather being a general feeling appended to his well-constructed plots. From her search for contractors to her preparations to meet her investors, Lena cannot be more lost. Yet, as untethered from her U.S. moorings as she is, she manages. She copes, and Moore does an admirable job of portraying her external successes as well as her internal failures. This is even reflected in the title. Her haunted hotel may be inhospitable, but no more so than her surroundings. Or her head.

Her sidekick throughout most of this is the son of her investors, Isaac, a Hong Kong resident on leave from a British university. His relationship with his parents is a difficult one, and not just because of his homosexuality. It’s also the subject of the novel’s most interesting twist. Her actual partner, Marcus, is only seen in the last third or so of the novel and although he may provide Lena some emotional support, he’s not much good with the spirits. In fact, it’s his surname that’s causing the haunting, but to say more would be getting into spoiler territory.

So, what we have with Inhospitable is a smart, neatly-plotted, and absolutely absorbing haunted house story the likes of which you probably haven’t read before. Non-traditional and quite satisfying, it’s the creepiest book you’ll read this year–but I mean that in the best way possible.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Orchids, Rosebuds, and Sweet Flags: Reflections on Gay Poetry – Drewey Wayne Gunn (Lethe Press)

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Drewey Wayne Gunn, professor emeritus of Texas A & M University-Kingsville, made a career of cataloging and examining Gay mysteries, pulps, and drama that were in danger of being forgotten.  Before he died, he wrote Orchids, Rosebuds, and Sweet Flags:  Reflections on Gay Poetry, doing the same thing for poetry, leaving us with a compendium of poetry that we can refer to as Gay, even if it had been written before Gay (as we understand it in the modern sense) became a thing.

So what kind of compendium has Gunn left us?  At its most basic, his book is a list; and lists are always idiosyncratic, revealing more about the list-maker than anything else, as Gunn acknowledges: “I remind myself that my taste is based on my experiences.  They have predisposed me to like certain poems and to dislike others.”  Gunn’s taste was, put simply, eclectic:  some Great Names from the Canon of Dead White Males appear, but lesser known names, both past and present, can also be found.  Of the 83 poets included, 46 wrote originally in English; the rest wrote in Akkadian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Japanese, Russian, and Slovene.  And unlike most academics, Gunn did not disdain writings that were widely known and enjoyed by many people, equating “popular” with “pedestrian” or “lowbrow.”  Nor is any topic off limits:  subject matter ranges from the downright obscene to the romantic and elegiac.

Gunn begins his list ca. 1300-1100 BCE with the Epic of Gilgamesh by Sin-lēqi-unninni, briefly stopping in the Hebrew Bible (the Lament for Saul and Jonathan by David; 2 Samuel 1:19-27), wending through Homer’s Iliad, traveling through the Latin poets of Antiquity (Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Martial, Juvenal), before visiting the Near East (Rumi and Sa`di) and the Middle Ages (Dante and Hafiz of Shiraz).  So roughly 2500 years of human history, and literature, occupy the first forty pages.  The Renaissance and the Early Modern periods (Michelangelo, Spenser, Drayton, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Barnfield, John Wilmot) occupy the next twenty; and so, on page 60, we are already at the nineteenth century with Lord Byron, von Platen, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Whitman, and Verlaine and Rimbaud.  The rest of the book (well over half) deals with the entire twentieth century, plus the beginnings of the twenty-first, ranging from T. S. Eliot, Roger Casement, Tennessee Williams, James Broughton, Essex Hemphill, to Hal Duncan, Brane Mozetič, Slava Mogutin, and Stephen S. Mills.

I should stress that this slender volume is not an anthology of Gay poetry:  Gunn occasionally quotes brief excerpts from the poetry he discusses, but rather each entry (as the subtitle notes) is a personal reflection about the context for each poet in his Gay canon, explaining what we know of each poet’s Gay life, and which poems have implicit or explicit Gay readings.  Gunn provides editions and/or English translations for the poems he examines; if multiple versions exist, he discusses their merits and then proposes his favorite.  When available and appropriate, he also provides supplementary materials such as recent biographies and/or critical works for each poet.  Closing the book is a short essay on the vagaries of translation (especially in regards to poetry), a full bibliography of all cited works and editions, and an index.

Lest you think that this volume is simply a catalogue of essays with pedantic, dry-as-dust commentary on the symbolism of rosebuds, I note that Gunn is not above dishing a little bit, for example remarking that when Lord Byron’s body was exhumed in 1938 it “was still in an excellent state of preservation” which provoked the discovery that “his sexual organ showed `quite abnormal development’” whereas Verlaine’s member was “short and not very voluminous” according to court records of the time.  Moreover, Gunn is not shy about sharing personal details, such as his regret at not hooking up with Allen Ginsburg when they met at the 1980 MLA Convention.

Literature is a conversation.  Every poet writes in response to whoever has written before him; when readers read their poetry, they in turn continue the dialogue.  Gunn engaged with each of the poets in his final work, at turns agreeing, disputing, approving or not of their poems; by so doing he encourages us to do the same.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Thirty Years A Dresser – Dennis Milam Bensie (Coffeetown Press)

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I thought I wanted to be in show business when I was in high school, but then I became involved in the Senior Play (“Mame” that year–something Bensie and I have in common). Too shy to try out for an acting role, though dying to, I worked backstage as prop guy and general go-fer. It was far too much work for the very fleeting reward of the cast party, so my stage career was derailed. However, Dennis Milam Bensie’s memoir of life in the wings, Thirty Years a Dresser makes it all sound so damn fun I almost got the bug once again. Almost.

Bensie’s anecdotes are wild and woolly shaggy dog stories he freely admits he’s exaggerated, though not by much. And they are hilarious. Thirty Years a Dresser provides plenty of laughs from the spurting blood vest in “Agnes of God” to the two hundred costumes required for “The Grapes of Wrath,” and Bensie writes about it all with equal parts love and loathing.

Most memoirs I’ve read are at least partially self-serving, but Bensie’s stands out as self-deprecating instead (as did his previous One Gay American). He never takes himself too seriously–his craft and his subject, yes, but never himself. Moreover, although his role in the proceedings is central, he never focuses on himself, preferring to keep the spotlight on his subjects.

And what subjects they are–from Rosie O’Donnell stories to less famous actors and even ones you even have to guess (but “played John Travolta’s younger brother in a blockbuster movie” is hardly tough to figure out), the backstage details come fast and furious. To take the smell out of costumes? Vodka and box fans. Who knew? Such are the tricks of Bensie’s trade, and he spills them all.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and if you have even a passing interest in the theatre, either on or off stage, you owe it to yourself to pick this up and devour it in one or two sittings, as I did. Highly recommended.

JW

© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Minnesota Boy: A Memoir – Mark Abramson (CreateSpace)

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2017 was another great year for gay male memoirs and journals, some by well-known writers like Daniel Mendelssohn, David Sedaris, and Armistead Maupin. Other, even better, books by unexpected writers like poet Kenny Fries memoir, In the Province of the Gods, and octogenarian British dramatist Alan Bennett (of The History Boys fame). First books by Chike Frankie Edozien, Parvez Sharma, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Victor Corona, and Peter Gadjics show that gay writing is now global and historically significant in its concerns and also in its reach. In such a year, quieter books tend to get lost but that must not happen to Mark Abramson’s third memoir, Minnesota Boy.

I first heard of Abramson through San Francisco pals who were enchanted by his series of “Beach Reading” books, light, sexy novels.  With his memoir Sex, Drugs and Disco, and especially with For My Brothers, Abramson took on more authorial and historic weight, writing with what one reader called a “you-were-there” quality, about one young gay man’s coming of age in San Francisco in the 1970s, documenting his life and experiences through the subsequent decades. These books were fascinating because handsome young Abramson found himself at the center of Baghdad By the Bay’s night life scene, first as a bartender and then as producer of fund raisers for AIDS and other causes. I spent enough time there then to know that his details are correct, his judgements balanced, and his take on people and events really quite measured.

This is crucial in memoirs if they are to have any use beyond the author’s ego-gratification. Abramson was able to do it because he had been a fresh-faced kid from the sticks, and pretty much everyone he encountered in that city was going out of their way to be extraordinary in a time and place when that required serious effort. His take on it all was to be appreciative rather than critical and so we got a pretty accurate picture of those heady days of the 1970’s of which many people believe, “if you can remember anything, you weren’t really there.” That wasn’t so for me and it’s not true for Abramson. We enjoyed and we remembered.

What sets Abramson apart from even my memoirs of the period is that he is utterly comfortable with being ordinary and with having fairly ordinary experiences — some of which do go haywire and unexpectedly stymie but ultimately delight him and his reader. This is more difficult to pull off than writing about the terrific and weird and wondrous. We come to trust Abramson’s voice and his instincts and his factual information in a way that I found difficult with some of the more literary writers mentioned in this review.

Minnesota Boy grew out of a request by his fatally ill mother, who said, “I think you should write a book about that trip you took to Europe when you were right out of high school, playing your saxophone with that band, you know?” Abramson adds, “It started out with that phone call from my mother on her death bed, or so she thought. It turned into a longer story about college, being different, trying to fit in, and slowly coming out, in more ways than one. Then it turned into a story about love and longing and finally leaving Minnesota for San Francisco.” He also admits, “This didn’t exactly turn out to be the book my mother wanted me to write. If she were here to read it, she would say she was embarrassed because it was so dirty. I would tell her she was not the target audience and we would both have a laugh.”

This is exactly what I would expect from a farm boy, who is a good student, and who is comfortable with his life, but who knows he has to expand it, first by going to Washington, D.C. and then to Europe. Surprise, surprise, he doesn’t fit in. But he doesn’t kvetch, he doesn’t kvell, and especially he doesn’t exaggerate. He intuits that experience is useful and his phone calls home to his parents confirm that. Meanwhile we get fascinating, yet trustworthy portraits of a world that is changing almost too quickly. This important because it is our history and although gay millennials seem as dim about the past as their straight coevals, it’s important that it be on record. It helps a lot that Abramson is always entertaining: I mean when is the last time you read about someone in a marching brass band?

Reviewed by Felice Picano

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