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Out-and-Proud Reads

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Known as the “deer park” of Southern California, Palm Springs is historically the desert playground for Hollywood stars. Now it’s an artsy and gourmet town catered to the hip and chic crowd, including the gays. What do you do in Palm Springs if you’re into bar hopping and partying? You read! Grab a few books, sit on the chaise by the pool, and read up!

At my premium gay men resort library, I stumbled upon an issue of Out magazine in which Philip Hensher, British author and Booker Prize finalist, reveals his 10 must-read gay novels.

It’s safe to say that having read 7 in this list the gay card will not be taken away from me. Three of them—The Swimming Pool Library, Maurice, and Giovanni’s Room are among some of the most important, and most memorable, books that have shaped my adulthood and that I have re-read over the years. Maurice is Forster’s best although the subject matter was ahead of its time. The book was a pioneer in the way it portrays how people try to make sense of their desire with no precedent. Giovanni’s Room is the love story of an American in Paris and an Italian bartender. The Swimming Pool Library is the most dense book on the list. It also afford the stereotypically oversexed gay life.

The ones I haven’t read are The Bell, The Kills, and Christopher and His Kind. I’m very surprised to find out that Murdoch was somebody who was very interested in the gay male experience. The Kills is the only one I haven’t heard of. It’s a post-Iraq War epic story, and its size speaks for its epicness.

[662] Ivan and Misha – Michael Alenyikov

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” The differences were as profound as the approach to God defined by Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. And just as irreconcilable. In Misha’s world one was loyal to the death for family, even if they drove you crazy, even if they were crazy. ” (It Takes All Kinds, p.85)

Ivan and Misha is a set of interrelated stories about two fraternal twins, both gay, but one of whom is not completely sure of his sexuality, and their father, Lyov. Born and raised in former USSR, in Kiev (now Ukraine), they followed their father to America after the fall of Berlin Wall. Lyov, who became Louie after he arrived in New York, received one year of medical training and was sent out into the horror of Second World War to amputate limbs from soldiers without anesthetics. He promised his sons a better life, a new apartment, a new mother—after his wife took her life just before the boys turned six.

We stared at each other. Neither of us gave ground. Time passed. I don’t recall if I’d ever stared so long into another man’s eyes—and yes, I could see what I’d been missing for too long: that he was no longer a boy. And I had no choice: accept him or lose him, really quite an easy decision. (Barrel of Laughs, p.57)

The five tales explore different facets of love and meanings of family. Each narrated by father, two sons, and lovers, respectively, the stories establish context and time frames for the other stories. Misha emerges as a compassionate and accommodating person who struggles to create a sense of family with his quixotic boyfriend, Smith, his wildly unpredictable, bipolar brother, Ivan, and his father Lyov, who has recently suffered a minor stroke. When Ivan, the bipolar brother who is a cab driver, is shot by a fare, it’s revealed that Misha is HIV positive—he cannot give blood to his brother. Lyov, protective of his sons, wants to spare his boys the painful truth that their mother committed suicide when they were very young. The same self-serving lies are told to Misha by Smith, who strives to rid of his memory and tie to his family. The most unforgivable lie is told to Misha by his former lover Kevin, whose story transports reader back to the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the hospital room of his dying lover, Vinnie.

Ivan and Misha subtly explores how the past, with its horrors, exerts an influence on life in the present. It also explores how one’s future shall be altered when death divides us from people we love. In the father Alenyikov has created a memorable character of cultural depth. It’s almost condescending of him to change his name to Louie and takes up friendship with Leo, someone who is unmatched to his background and who would not understand the depth of Lyov’s thoughts and culture. Also in Lyov one sees the power of love, which transcends all values. He comes to embrace his son’s sexuality with an open mind, out of love; and he never questions what or how or why—just accepts who he is. The prose is beautiful and lyrical, with a mix of dialogue and stream-of-consciousness. Ivan and Misha is not an read read. It begs to be re-read because the overlapping moment of significance at the confluence of these lives is not readily revealed.

198 pp. Northwestern University Press. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[652] Jack Holmes and His Friend – Edmund White

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” Jack didn’t think he was a nonconformist; he simply loved Will. If he could have magically turned himself into a girl whom Will would want to marry, he’d have done it without hesitation. He’d have converted to Catholicism, become a woman, borne Will’s many children, shopped for dresses at Peck and Peck, learned to cook Rice-A-Roni— ” (Part I, 6, p.111)

As the novel’s title suggests, it’s Jack who is initially brought into sharper focus. Raised in an eccentric Midwestern family, Jack has been a bright student and chooses to study Chinese art history in college. We learn nothing about his parents although much dire history is hinted at. Moving to New York after graduating, it is at the high-end, conservative, but also snooty Northern Review that he experiences the coup de foudre that will determine the course of his life (and the book), plunging him deeply in love with the metrosexual Will Wright, a reserved, oddly handsome, and snobbish aspiring novelist who unfortunately lacks the talent.

In the early sixties, when I’d met him, I’d thought of his queerness as a deformity, a scandal, something akin to a heroin addiction or pedophilia or membership in the Communist Party. I’d liked Jack in spite of this, but since I’d known it could get him fired, I’d been determined to keep it a secret. (Part II, 4, p.268)

Will’s unassailable heterosexuality becomes the catalyzt for Jack’s emerging homosexuality—or more like libertine hedonism. Jack sleeps with other men but only sees these lovers as stand-ins, unsatisfactory substitutes for the real object of his desires. Will eventually falls in love with Jack’s close friend Alexandra, a New York heiress and beauty. It’s almost ten years later when the two friends run into each other by chance—and hither begins Will’s narrative. He is bored with the wife, his marriage falters—yet another crisis that heralds his closeness to Jack, who, acting as a bizarre kind of Pandarus, sets him up with the plump, sexually voracious Pia.

As Will indulges in the sexually and socially transgressive delights of his extramarital affair, Jack again finds himself falling in love with his friend again. But this time he’s more mature to handle it. It’s a deep relationship that has matured over the years, ripe with trust. It’s the primary friendship for them both during this period of their lives. This book, despite all the bodily indulgence and surgical details of physicality, is about friendship. White neither sentimentalizes nor overemphasizes Jack and Will’s friendship; it’s complex and filled with tension and unspoken conflict as any close relationship, but because two men speak so un-self-consciously about their bodies, their sexuality, and their preferences, they transcend it all—even in 1960s New York. The female characters fall short: debutante Alex and slutty Pia, are just cardboard cutouts with no more than convenient characteristics. The ending is also hasty and abrupt. The peculiar and persistent nature of male bonding is the the book’s great strength. But it’s obsession with physical aspects of sexuality renders it shallower than Edmund’s earlier works.

392 pp. Bloomsbury. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[550] Mapping the Territory – Christopher Bram

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” The human race is full of sin, but conservatives have somehow decided that the gravest sin is homosexuality. Since they’re not homosexual themselves, they can feel assured they are among the righteous, even if they sometimes think impure thoughts, cheat in business, cheat on their spouses, neglect their children or skip church on Sunday. ” (A Sort of Friendship: A Few Thoughts about Gay Marriage, p.225)

Mapping Territory is Christopher Bram’s first collection of non-fiction over his thirty-year career. These essays range through such topics as the power of gay fiction, coming out in the 1970s, the AIDS epidemic, gay marriage, and the vicissitude of lower Manhattan. As befit and instinctive of a novelist, into these autobiographical piece, arranged more or less in chronological order, imparted Bram’s love for books and literature and how they help him address his sexuality as well as allow him to read his own desires. As a young reader, I shared Bram’s experience in reading the way into homosexuality—something is that is both eye-opening and relieving. The literature assures Bram, and myself, that being homosexual is not being off the margin. Homosexuality should be connected with the rest of life. This is certainly a revelation to me who comes out two generations after the author did, but still confronting a society in which “culture at large regularly instructs people on how to be heterosexual.” (A Body in Books: A Memoir in a Reading List, p.22)

Sex is intensely subjective anyway, full of built-in guilt and anxiety. No matter what you do or don’t do, it often feels wrong. During my first years in New York, I felt that I’d failed as a gay man if I didn’t have X number of partners over Y span of time . . . Monogamy was considered a blind aping of heterosexuals, despite the fact that the sexual revolution made fidelity less mandatory for them as well. (Faggots Revisited, p.105)

Mapping Territory does not just reach out to real readers—hungry, curious, open-minded readers of fiction in particular and good books in general, although these people, gay and straight, Bram sadly notes, are a minority. Beside a didactic discussion on what contributes gay literature and a critical review of Larry Kramer’s sex-renouncing Faggots, which continues to hit a nerve of the gays and provoke anger, Bram writes about coming out in Virginia, his stoop in West Village, the life of Henry James, the different appeals between books and movie tie-ins, the egotistic straight male fiction, and gay marriage.

That is my chief problem with most straight male fiction: authorial egos are so insistently, domineeringly, present. In too many novels I feel locked in a jail cell with just one other person, either a solitary sufferer or all-knowing puppeteer. Other people, other points of view, barely exist—even other male points of view. (Can Straight Men Still Write? p.176)

It is not until Bram makes this observation of his reading blind spot that I realize the straight male authors have accounted for less than a tenth in my reading. Authors he named emotionally thin and stylistically opaque are ones I have also long abandoned! This collection of essays is so rich in anecdotes, humor, philosophy and literary critique. Amazing how many of his feelings and experiences corroborate to mine, even down to his craving for erotic literature written with seriousness and craft. What Bram’s essays do for me is exactly why gay men and women search out for such literature: to find the much needed mirrors of reality. Woven throughout this endlessly entertaining book is Bram’s elegant use of the English language. The book also gives me fodder for my reading list.

256 pp. Alyson Books. Hardcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[522] The Story of A Marriage – Andrew Sean Greer

This is a war story. It was not meant to be. It started as a love story, the story of a marriage, but the war has stuck to it everywhere like shattered glass. Not an ordinary story of men in battle but of those who did not go to war. The cowards and shirkers; who let an error keep them from their duty, those who saw it and hid, those who stood up and refused it; even those too young to know that one day they would rise and flee their own country, like my son would, when his time came to go to war. ” (Part IV, p.156)

In 1943, Pearlie and Holland are best friends who walk home from school and read to each other in Kentucky. On the eves of war, Pearlie helps Holland’s mother protect her son from the draft. When a medical emergency interferes with the plan, Holland ends up serving in the army, but is severely burned after his ship is sunk. Pearlie is recruited to work in a California factory where she will spy on her coworkers. Shortly after the war, Pearlie and Holland reunite in San Francisco. Against his aunts’ advisory, and despite the fact that she knows nothing about him, Pearlie marries him because he is the only boy who ever holds her hand and—he is too beautiful a man to lose.

What is it like for men? Even now I can’t tell you. To have to hold up the world and never show the stain. To protect at every moment: pretend to be strong, and wise, and good, and faithful. But nobody is strong or wise or good or faithful, not really. It turns out everyone is faking it as best they can. (Part IV, p.175)

So Paerlie finds herself married, being a dutiful wife who takes care of her frail husband, who is stricken by post traumatic stress disorder. In deference to his supposed fragility, she pampers him to the extent that she would cut out newspaper that might remind him of war. She is also devoted to her son who is afflicted with polio. Although they are the only black family in the Sunset district, where new houses are put up for returning soldiers and their families, she feels at home in this neighborhood that is separated from downtown by a mountain and a tunnel. But all seems relatively well until, in 1953, an elegantly dressed white man, with a broken nose and missing finger, rings at the door; he introduces himself as Buzz Drumer and, before long, tells her that he and Holland met in an army hospital and fell in love. Buzz has come to get his former lover back. A rich man, he offers to recompense Pearl if she conspires with him in his lovelorn plan to carry Holland off. She hates the idea, but she feels helpless. “It seems what binds one human to another is pain.,” (71) and “I did not know how to fight a white man; I was born without that muscle.” (73)

If, like the rest of us stepping toward the edge of thirty, he would figure out at last his heart’s desire . . . He was so used to being all things, pleasing all people. (Part II, p.108)

As Buzz insinuates into the family’s carefully managed existence, the novel takes on an increasing sense of foreboding. It settles in as a murky triangle and takes up the ambiguities of intimacy and bisexuality. Between divided loyalties and dangerous affections, a woman, one who always feels like she needs an extra armor to protect herself, perseveres in her duty as a wife and a mother. Heightened the predicament are complication of races and all the contemporary goings-on: Second World War, Korea, rationing, McCarthyism, homophobia, racial discrimination, war objectors—with which Greer sketches the background of the story. The Story of a Marriage is told in Pearl’s first-person narrative, in a voice with tense reserve and keen awareness. In her reflections, seasoned sentences often pass through her mind. Greer’s writing is simple and affecting, but his plotting doesn’t always live up to Pearl’s commentary, whose interests in silences, misunderstandings and people’s many-sideness, and indecisiveness, acquire a historical dimension.

195 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Stonewall Inn Editions

I have only been enlightened to the Stonewall Inn Editions when I recently read The Coming Storm by Paul Russell. Stonewall Inn Editions is a trade paperback line founded at St. Martin’s in 1987 by editor Michael Denneny and to this day it remains the only gay/lesbian imprint at a major publishing house. St. Martin’s is one of the 10 largest book publishers in the United States. One part of St. Martin’s overall publishing program is a long-term commitment to quality gay and lesbian interest titles.

Since A Different Light, the GLBT bookstore, went under two years ago, books in this genre lack a central venue for publicity. Back in the days A Different Light would feature staff recommendations and new titles on the wall immediately to the left when you enter the store. Now bookstores claim to have LGBT titles but they are buried to the back of the store and most titles are either out of stock or out of print. I’m glad to discover this series devoted to the subject matter. Among the more generally known authors they have published include Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On and The Mayor of Castro Street.

Upon consulting the fiction list I have added these titles to my acquisition:

Another Mother by Ruthann Robson
“Angie Evans–an attorney specializing in lesbian legal issues, partner in a committed relationship, and mother to an adopted daughter–seems to have the best of all worlds. But she is caught in the contradictions that make up her life. As she fights to make sense of the labels that have been applied to her, Angie finds her crisis of identity boiling over.” –Book description

Boys Like Us by Peter McGehee
“A genuinely delightful gay domestic comedy so full of tangy dialogue and wacky situations that it screams for the stage or, better yet, the screen.” –Booklist

The Dream Life by Bo Huston
“Told in alternating narrative voices, this is a daring novel about love between a man and a boy by one of the finest writers of the past decade.” –Book description

Joseph and the Old Man by Christopher Davis
“The flamboyant town of Cherry Grove, serenely situated along the beach of Fire Island, is the setting for this unusually poignant and joyful love story. In this cozy little summer community, the old man, a world-famous novelist, young at heart and beloved by everyone, lives with Joe, some thirty years a younger man, sleek and tan, who loves the old man and considers himself lucky to be living with him for the last ten years (unaware that friend consider the old man just as lucky).” –Book description

Tangled Up in Blue by Larry Duplechan
“A story of three people bound together by ties of love, passion, and friendship until a crisis for one threatens to destroy them all.” –Goodreads

Valley of the Shadow by Christopher Davis
“With simple clarity and undeniable power, Davis tells a story of great love and great tragedy; of AIDS and of two young men; of flawless summer days and starlit nights; of parents and children; and of the tangled web of love and loss and loyalty that is life itself.” –Goodreads

Winter Eyes by Lev Raphael
“Loneliness, separation, desire and the struggle with gay identity are the leitmotifs of Lev Raphael’s new novel. What distinguishes [Winter Eyes] is Raphael’s handling of grand themes, and his ongoing exploration of worlds both Jewish and gay and how they intersect, daring himself and his readers to contemplate wholeness.” –Jenifer Levin, Forward

[500] The Coming Storm – Paul Russell

” If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the unfortunate thing about life is that everything’s mixed. There’s no absolute good and there’s no absolute evil. There’s just a lot of confusion. ” (IV, p.117)

The Coming Storm tells the story of four interconnected lives, and is set within the claustrophobic world of a traditional boys’ prep school in upstate New York. The intricate narratives, told from the alternating perspective of four characters—Louis Tremper, the headmaster; his wife, Claire Tremper; Tracy Parker, the newly hired 25-year-old English teacher; and Noath Lathrop III, a 15-year-old student struggling with his own sexuality—are both elegant and eloquent in style.

But with that thought, Louis was the one skating on treacherously thin ice. Without another glance in that dangerous direction, he headed back for the safety of solid ground. He refused, these days, to live dangerously—if, indeed, he ever had. (XIII, p.246)

The novel is a complicated one that exposes the closely held secrets of the human heart. Russell tackles the delicate, and politically inflammable, issue of pedophilia, as he traces, in a non-stereotypical manner, the complexities of a sexual relationship between Tracy and Noah. Between them there exists an invisible but undeniable connection, and outside the classroom, in clandestine meetings, their socially forbidden relationship gathers both depth and focus.

Listening to Tracy’s litany of misery. [Louis] found himself secretly disappointed in this young man who, having dared make of his own errant dreaming a reality, now grew so quickly frightened of the beautiful disaster he had created for himself. Such love as this, tragic, criminal, impossible, a dream meant only to be dreamed and never, never to be lived . . . (XVII, p.327)

Though no one is more upset about betraying Noah’s trust than Tracy himself, and Noah wants for what happened to happen, their affair alarms and ruffles Louis Tremper, a repressed homosexual with a love for German opera. He has long resorted to a safe life that chooses morality over sensuality. He makes attempt to a pure friendship with Tracy and his former mentor. This is why, at the beginning of the novel, which proceeds in a natural arc of pertinent biographical information, Louis seems unrevealed, sequestered, and hemmed in. He is to me, by far, the most interesting character in terms of complexity of feelings. There exists a part of Louis’s self that is even impenetrable to Claire, who attributes her husband’s aloofness to his unfinished dissertation back in graduate school. With no knowledge of Louis’s secret affection for men, when confided in by Tracy, she adopts a milder view to the teacher-student affair.

Life, meaningless life, was at times fraught with fear symmetries. (XVII, p.338)

As Tracy and Noah’s relationship becomes known to Louis, and the school is threatened to be on the cusp of a scandal, past histories begin to unravel, including the notorious history of what happened with Arthur Branson and Jack Emmerich, the former headmaster. That affair was seamlessly covered up but it ruined both Arthur and the headmaster’s lives, as well as Louis’s. Louis stepped in to stop the relationship, but turned his back on Arthur when he declared his homosexuality. Forty years later, as history repeats itself, Louis turns his back on Tracy for the same reason—for he is wallowed in his own homophobia.

All but Noah are left pondering their regrets and mistakes. Louis feels once again he has failed the person in the situation who needs protecting most, Noah. Russell is adept at elucidating the emotional desert that comes from denying passion, from being dishonest with one’s feelings. I enjoy the ease with which Russell reveals the past of his characters to fully depict their psyches. This book is an intense scrutiny of humanity we all possess and the power of desire.

371 pp. St. Martin Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]