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[599] Almost Like Being in Love – Steve Kluger


” If I have to call every one of them, I’ll find him. Okay, maybe he doesn’t need a psychopathic history professor showing up from the Twilight Zone, and maybe he won’t even like me any more. But he still has my heart—and if he’s not using it, I want it back. Otherwise I’m going to go on loving him for the rest of my life. ” (Ch.6, Travis, 150)

Charming, engrossing, funny, and original (I usually don’t attach so many adjectives to a book), Almost Like Being in Love is a book about first love, true love, and love in general. Craig McKenna is a high-school jock, the future alpha-male. Travis Puckett is the nerd who hitch-hikes 300 miles for a musical album. The nerd has resisted speaking to the jock because he’s afraid (when he does he squeaks). Finally, in 1978, during their senior year, they become fast friends. It isn’t long that they are completely, hopelessly in love with each other. After a very memorable summer in New York, they are off to attend their respective colleges—and slowly drift apart.

Maybe he just wants to catch up on the old days. Maybe he’s in a jam and he needs my help. Maybe I’m full of shit and know it. There can only be one reason he’s tracking me down after twenty years: he wants to find Brigdoon again. But this time for keeps.
I’m in big trouble.

Fast forward twenty years. Travis is a history professor at USC who has no luck in relationship. The neurotic, obsessive-compulsive musical and baseball freak takes love advice from his students by insidiously working questions in their American History test papers. On a very extravagant date Travis has an epiphany that he is still in love with Craig—and he decides to put his whole life on hold, including a $30K research grant, and starts out on a coast-to-coast hunt for the boyfriend.

Being Travis was a full-time job, yet that never kept him from teaching me how to be Craig.

So the book is primarily about Travis and his trip to look for Craig, who is an attorney with activist inclinations and a soft spot for runaway kids. Travis’s biggest obstacle, beside breaking into Craig’s mother’s office to pillage the Rolodex, is that Craig is in a long-term relationship with Clayton. The trip is full of embarrassment on Travis’s behalf, as he blunders his way through the road. The commendable hook of Almost Like Being in Love is the epistolary form, told via school assignments, checklists, emails, menus, journal entries, transcripts, and narratives, which allow the story and the characters to keep up their antics without overwhelming the reader with their constant clever, hilarious dialogue.

I am personally in love with Travis who, despite his quirky and unbelievable action, strikes me as someone who is real. Craig is also a perfect counterpoint with his activism and virtue. Throughout the book one can see Travis’s lasting influence on Craig. Even Craig’s relationship with Clayton is well-drawn and touching, making me wonder how this love triangle will turn out. long with all the humor, wit, and clever innuendo, the story is at heart a romance and an ode to first love.

354 pp. Perennial Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[580] We Are Water – Wally Lamb


” But anyway, in the weeks after I confronted Annie, we made our peace. I apologized for the things I’d said, she for the things she’d done and hadn’t done—the secrets she’d kept. I hadn’t scared her away after all. And so she had kept returning to the home we had shared so that she could help me. It was ironic, really. Annie had somehow become a better, more honest and forgiving wife then when we were married. So maybe that’s what love means. Having the capacity to forgive the one who wronged, no matter how deep the hurt was. ” (Part V, Ch.27, p.532-533)

We often say in life you lose some and you win some. As for Orion and Annie Oh, after 27 years of marriage, when Annie, an outsider artist who decides to marry her art dealer—a woman, they seem to be in a lose-lose situation. The middle-age mother/wife ‘s wedding announcement shakes her family to its core. Orion feels unmoored. He has not realized the extent to which agitation and childhood trauma fuel Annie’s art. But as Lamb slowly reveals the emotional history and the troubled past, the story goes back in time to a flood that lays waste to both a town and the family who is central to the plot. The book delves deeper by sharing flashbacks and narratives of friends and neighbors.

My eyes fill with tears. I turn and look out the window so that Minnie won’t see. All she did was make an empty threat, but I actually left them there and drove off . . . What kind of a mother . . . A terrible one, that’s what kind I was. A mother who was angry and resentful and so focused on her art that . . . They deserved someone better—someone as patient and even-keeled as their father. I probably shouldn’t even have had kids. (Part IV, Ch.20, p.395)

We Are Water is an intrcate and layered portrait of marriage, family, and the inexorable need for understanding and connection. Told in alternating voices of the Ohs—the wife-turned-lesbian Annie; the psychologist ex-husband Orion; the do-gooder daughter Ariane who induces pregnancy by insemination; the TV personality daughter Marissa; and the conservative soldier Andrew—Lamb deftly probes the dynamics and the changing meaning of family. Annie’s impending marriage to Viveca only provokes the innermost secrets each has harbored and forces them to cope with the dark and painful truths that have festered below the surface of their lives.

I just never expected that she’d bail on me. But it’s not all on her. I neglected her, took her for granted. She had a night to seek out her own happiness. But with a woman? It’s unmoored me, you know? All of it. The divorce, the accusation, quitting my job. It’s like I’m adrift out there. (Part III, Ch.18, p.356)

Enmeshed in the family drama are themes universal to American literature: race, class, same-sex marriage, immigrants, and bipartisan politics. Lamb never foists his views of these issues upon reader with his authorial intrusion. They rather manifest in the most subtle way in conversations. The result is a compulsively readable novel that captures the essence of human experience—especially how traumatized childhood, if unresolved and allowed to fester, finds its way into marriage and parenthood. We Are Water explores explores the resiliency and fluidity of humanity, through tragedy of loss. As the Oh family comes to terms with the long-buried secrets that transform their lives, they also learn the new meaning of family.

564 pp. Harper Collins. Advanced Reader Copy/Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Two Books

I stumbled upon this book, Before the Last Dance, when I stumbled upon a friend who was reading it. Then on a gay men social network I saw that name again and it rang a bell. Until then I have never heard of James Randall Chumbley, whose website I just located. The novel, which I promptly acquired today, tells a familiar tale of iconically beautiful gay men and their obsession with youth and aging, the pursuit of of physical perfection and, of course, sex. Honestly, over the years I have grown weary about the subject matter because it’s been written to death. You will have some charged sex scenes that transcend pornography. Chumbley’s book delves in an inevitable subject all all gay men have to face: aging. This book really helps put my recent trip to Palm Springs in perspective. Over half of the (gay) population is men over 50. Every Gay man can identify with The main characters, Tom and Trey. I saw a bit of myself in Tom with his obsession with youth and his terror of growing old. The topic of growing older in our youth-obsessed gay culture is something that cries to be discussed and considered. I’m looking forward to reading this when I take a weekend off in Los Angeles at the end of the month.

The other highlight is Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram, whose fictional works I have long revered. Bram brilliantly chronicles the rise of gay consciousness in American writing. Beginning with a first wave of major gay literary figures-Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, and James Baldwin-he shows how (despite criticism and occasional setbacks) these pioneers set the stage for new generations of gay writers to build on what they had begun: Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, Tony Kushner, and Edward Albee among them. Like all good books of criticism, this one will make me eager to read the many works I may have missed or re-read others.

Lambda Literary Award, LGBT Fiction

If you have never read LGBT fiction or would like to explore this genre more deeply, Lambda Literary Foundation would be a great starting point. Lambda Literary Foundation in Los Angeles announced the finalists for the 23rd Lambda Literary Award last week. This year the finalists were selected from a record number of nominations. More than 90 booksellers, book reviewers, librarians, authors, previous Lammy winners and finalists, and other book professionals volunteered many hours of reading time, critical thinking, and invigorating shared discussion to select the finalists in 24 categories.

I’m most interested in categories concerning fiction and literature:

Bisexual Fiction

Fall Asleep Forgetting Georgeann Packard | The Permanent Press
If You Follow Me Malena Watrous| Harper Perennial
Krakow Melt Daniel Allen Cox Arsenal| Pulp Press
The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet Myrlin A. Hermes | Harper Perennial
Pride/Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Forbidden Lovers Ann Herendeen | Harper Paperbacks

Lesbian Fiction

Big Bang Symphony Lucy Jane Bledsoe | University of Wisconsin Press
Fifth Born II: The Hundredth Turtle
Zelda Lockhart | LaVenson Press
Holding Still for as Long as Possible
Zoe Whittall | House of Anansi
Carol Guess | PS Publishing
Inferno (A Poet’s Novel)
Eileen Myles | OR Books

Gay Fiction

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham | Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Children of the Sun Max Schaefer | Soft Skull
Consolation Jonathan Strong | Pressed Wafer
The Silver Hearted David McConnell | Alyson Books
Union Atlantic Adam Haslett | Doubleday

Gay Fiction category will see a very close race as all the finalists are fairly well-written and garnered attention in the gay community. Two authors I have met at readings have also advanced to final round in two other categories. In Bisexual Nonfiction category, Sal Mineo by Michael Gregg Michaud has been made a finalist. My friend Tom Schabarum, whose novel—The Palisades—has made an indelible impression in me, has also been named one of the finalists in Gay Debut Fiction. In his recent visit to San Francisco, before the night of reading at Books Inc, I had dinner with Tom where he shared the process behind writing the first novel. He has also been a graduate of Bennington and worked with John Rechy in a writer’s workshop. He’s always been writing on his own but decided to “decloset” himself as a writer. My congratulation to his success on the debut novel.

You may read the entire list of finalists here. The winners will be announced on May 26.