Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered” by Benjamin Taylor— A Memoir of a Year

Taylor, Benjamin. “The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered”, Penguin, 2017.

A Memoir of a Year

Amos Lassen

A few months ago I posted that we would soon be having a new book from one of my favorite authors and I am very happy to tell you that “The Hue and Cry at Our House: A Year Remembered” is now out. It is a memoir of one year of Taylor’s life and is quite a read. That year includes November 22, 1963 when eleven-year-old Benjamin Taylor and his mother waited to get a chance shake hands with President John F. Kennedy at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth. Just a few hours after that, Taylor’s teacher called the class in from recess and told he students that the president had been killed. It is from this starting point that Taylor traces his life. He looks back at the tension that had come into his family and his childhood friendships, summer camp, family trips, he shares the influence that the story of America had on his life and himself.

What I have always loved about Taylor is his beautiful prose and he once again charms with his words and lyricism. While this is the memoir of just one year, we see that it represents a lot more and what we might thing is unique to a specific year is actually part of other years because of the implications that are part of it. He says, “Any year I chose would show the same mettle, the same frailties stamping me at eleven and twelve.”

I want to believe that he shares everything with us—the ups and the downs and he doe so with almost brutal clarity and incredible nostalgia. He uses humor to keep us grinning on the outside as we digest and think about that year and as we do we try to remember similarities in our own lives. If you read Taylor’s book on Proust, you are quite aware of the influences on Taylor’s writing.

Taylor was able to shake Kennedy’s hand that November morning and it was quite the experience for him. Since Kennedy was his hero, the president’s death affected him profoundly (as it did to most of us who were alive and remember that day). His writing takes the form close to a universal elegy of a hero taken from us and it took years to recover from it. One reviewer remarked that this book is part of the “literature of loss” that is both “classical and impassioned”. This is the story of a gay Jewish boy who comes into his own with the shadow of the assassination hanging over him. There was other experiences that hold significance in his life but what really grips the reader is the emotion and wisdom with which this book was written. As soon as I finished reading this book, I wanted more so I sit down and read it again… and, again. I did not want to miss a single word.

It was from the moment that Taylor heard that the President was dead that he began his search within himself, hoping to learn who he really is. We see that his youthful years were very important to the shaping of the man he is today and it is wonderful that he is willing to share what he learns. Through his elegant and stylish prose, Benjamin Taylor introduces us to him and we feel that we have gained a new friend.

 

 

“The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life “ by Karin Roffman— The First 28 Years

Roffman, Karin. “The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s Early Life “, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2017.

The First 28 Years

Amos Lassen

John Ashbery has won every major American literary award yet his early years have remained a mystery to us… until now. Karin Roffman has written the first biography of Ashbery concentrating on the first twenty-eight years of his life. Ashbery has used his early years as a source for his poetry and it is that period of his life that brought such originality and unpredictability to his writing. Roffman went to the poet himself to learn about that his youth and there were more than 100 hours of interviews along with his unpublished letters and childhood journals that are the basis for this beautiful book. She maintains that it was those first twenty-eight years that brought him to Ashbery’s debut collection “Some Trees” in 1955 which W.H. Auden’s selected him for that year’s Yale Younger Poets Prize.

We see here that Ashbery’s poetry is a product of what he learned on his family’s farm and his experiences in New York City in the 1950s when he lived “a bohemian existence that teemed with artistic fervor and radical innovations inspired by Dada and surrealism as well as lifelong friendships with painters and writers such as Frank O’Hara, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Willem de Kooning”.

It seems that Ashbery has been something of a mystery man to many and this can be seen in his elusiveness and for many this makes him all the more interesting. I feel in love with this book on the first page but I would have been surprised if I had not since I love Ashbery’s poetry so much. I would not say that his life is as fascinating as his poetry but it is very interesting and there is a lot to be learned here. Karin Roffman has done a wonderful job of bring the poet to all of us.

Ashbery is on every page and the preface tells us that he was interested in this book being written that he introduced Roffman to four of his close friends. In his diaries, Roffman found that the poet’s voice was already there and she found humor and patience, impatience and experiences in them. Even in the earliest of his writings, we find Ashbery being drawn to moments that transform understanding and we see that he his early poems about loneliness also deal with how people think. I have heard others refer to Ashbery as a poet’s poet and that he is along with being a gentleman scholar.

 

 

 

“Inside Shadows: A Memoir” by Thomas Pfeifer— Thirty Years with HIV

Pfeifer, Thomas. “Inside Shadows: A Memoir”, Thomas Pfeifer, 2017.

Thirty Years with HIV

Amos Lassen

Thomas Pfeifer has been waging a nearly thirty-year war with HIV and this is memoir that chronicles that period. He provides a sense of hope for others in similar situation. The summer of 1985 was supposed to be the best time of his life. He had just come out and was accepting himself as a gay male and was having a great time. Then friends began to disappear and panic set in as rumors about a strange disease became public. The disease came to Minneapolis where Pfeifer lived and he soon discovered that he was HIV positive and everything he did was studied carefully. He knew he had changes to make if he was going to survive.

“Inside Shadows” looks at Pfeifer’s transformation as he moves from fear to acceptance. This was at a time when hype and hatred was dominant in the media. He quietly takes a stand by joining forces with other supportive community members. Over the years he has learned that by following his inner wisdom, and listening to the advice of other trusted individuals, he is able to deal with the deadly virus.

It was a time when hate and fear was everywhere but he knew he had decisions to make and he proved that adaptation is essential to survival even in the face of his HIV diagnosis. It was a time also when the verdict for HUV was death but he has beaten it by persistent searching for and adapting to new ways of thinking. He was willing to rebuild his life and find out how to live in a world that was in the process of changing. Now he wants to share with others what he has learned and he does so beautifully providing inspiration and hope to those who feel lost.

“Overcoming: Alone Against the World” by Hamid Zaher— A Gay Afghanistani

Zaher, Hamid. “Overcoming: Alone Against the World, Lulu, 2017.

A Gay Afghanistani

Amos Lassen

Hamid Zaher brings us his personal story as a Afghanitsani gay man. This is a story that we have too few off and it is so important that those who are persecuted in their countries come forward and tell the world what that is. As he grew up in Afghanistan, Hamid did not feel like a man and was more comfortable in the company of women. He eventually realized he was a gay and he knew that this was not only punishable but also taboo in his country. Homosexuality in Afghanistan was never discussed or even spoken of. Here he tells us about trying to leave his country, only to experience an additional discrimination based on his national origin. However, he was able to overcome the worldwide prejudice gay Afghanistani men face. He did manage to escape the religious and traditional homophobia and then had to face refugee-bashing when no country or the United Nations would admit him, It took a lot of time and work but Zaher made enough trouble and eventually succeeded in becoming recognized as a refugee by the UN when he settled in Canada. This is the story of how one man set goals, persevered, and attempted to overcome discriminations which were tied to his sexual orientation and nationality. In sharing his personal story and experiences, Zaher hopes to help others gain rights.

“Orphan Boys” by Phil Mews— Becoming Orphans

Mews, Phil. “Orphan Boys”, Independently Published, 2017.

Becoming Orphans

Amos Lassen

In 1976 during the hottest summer of a generation, life seemed ideal young brothers Philip and Roger. They lived on a farm in the north of England. They spend their days playing and all was fine until tragedy hit them. Within a ten-week period, the boys lost their parents and were left as orphans. This is the story of how their grandparents stepped in to bring them up and how a family and community came together to deal with the death of their parents. But this is not a sad memoir; it is a story of love and strength and an uplifting tale of a family’s survival and how they faced the huge challenges. There is both humor and heartbreak in their story and there is also great inspiration.

This is book that celebrates the close bonds of siblings and community and a sensitive narration of childhoods that were lot to tragedy. It contains wonderful descriptions of growing up in the seventies.

 

 

“Life is But A Dream” by Jackson Tyler Blackwell— Gay and Black in the South

Blackwell, Jackson Tyler. “Life Is But A Dream”, CreateSpace, 2017.

Gay and Black in the South

Amos Lassen

Most of us have never thought about what it means to be black and gay in the South and/or what it means to be HIV positive today. Jackson Tyler Blackwell writes about these two subjects (as well as many others) in “Life is But a Dream”. He writes of the issues regarding same sex attraction and the need for visibility of persons living with HIV/AIDS to combat stigma in the African American community and communities at large. We need more stories like this especially because these subjects so rarely are discussed on the printed page. Jackson clearly gives us the details about HIV as he takes us into his life as a southern and Black gay male. His book is readable and fascinating and we sense the pain he feels as he writes.

 

“In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume I, 1957-1969” by Samuel Delaney, edited by Kenneth R. James— Private Journals, Private Thoughts

Delany, Samuel. “In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume I, 1957-1969”, (edited by Kenneth R. James), Wesleyan, 2017.

Private Journals, Private Thoughts

Amos Lassen

For fifty years Samuel Delany has charmed us with language and his works of fiction, criticism, and memoir. His newest book is the first in a series of a his private journals, beginning in 1957 when he was still a student at the Bronx High School of Science, and ending in 1969 when he was living in San Francisco and on the verge of writing the novel that would become “Dhalgren”.

We read his musings on the writing of the stories that established him in the genre of science fiction wunderkind, the early years of his marriage to the poet Marilyn Hacker, his performances as a singer-songwriter during the heyday of the American folk revival, travels in Europe, experiences in a New York City commune, and much more. We learn of his relationships with other writer who were them working in many genres, including poets such as Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, and Marie Ponsot, and science fiction writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and Joanna Russ. Delany scholar Kenneth R. James presents the journal entries as well as samples of story outlines, poetry, fragments of novels and essays that have never seen publication as well as provides biographical synopses and an extensive set of endnotes that give contextual information and connect journal material to Delany’s published work.

We see Delany’s wit, sensitivity, penetration, playfulness and the incandescent intelligence that have come to will characterize Delany and his work. The journals clarify questions of the writer’s process, and his development. Near the end of December 1957, Delany began carrying around a spiral notebook and in which he noted his thoughts, observations, poetry, sexual fantasies, notes for stories, and many other things. It is very possible that he is doing so today as well.

 

 

“Toss of the Coin: Choosing My Gay Destiny” by Rob Tackes— A Journey Through Life

Tackes, Rob. “Toss of the Coin: Choosing My Gay Destiny”, Querelle Press, 2017.

A Journey Through Life

Amos Lassen

Rob Tackes takes us on his journey through life from the time and he was young and shy to becoming an “audacious” risk taker. He was raised in blue collar Chicago, had many adventures and ended up in San Francisco when in the late twentieth century it was one of the most dynamic cities for gay men. He meets Denis and they spend 60 years together and then on an urge and a prayer, he says yes to a proposal that sends him into the world of real estate. However, that did not last and then Rob is diagnosed with HIV causing him to examine himself and he way he was living. Almost immediately, he begins to work on his health and rebuilds his self-confidence.

Like any memoir, this is not just the story of a life but also a look at a period in time. It was in the 40s and 50s that his shy years took place and then he met Denis and they were off to San Francisco in 1970 at the beginning of the gay liberation revolution. Their lives were peppered with real estate, marijuana and sex and then HIV. Yet Rob kept on and he is a long-term survivor. He and Denis have moved to Palm Springs and they recently celebrated fifty-eight years together. Today his life is slow but it has been very full.

 

“Not So Good a Gay Man: A Memoir” by Frank M. Robinson— An Activist’s Memoir

Robinson, Frank M. “Not So Good a Gay Man: A Memoir”, Tor Books, 2017.

An Activist’s Memoir

Amos Lassen

Frank M. Robinson (1926-2014) was an author, a screenwriter and an activist. His many life accomplishments include working in magazine publishing, including a stint for “Playboy”, and writing science fiction such as “The Power”, “The Dark Beyond the Stars”, and thrillers such as “The Glass Inferno”. He was passionate about politics and he fought for gay rights, and he wrote speeches for his good friend Harvey Milk in San Francisco.

This is a deeply personal autobiography and is addressed to a friend in the gay community. In it, he explains the life of one gay man over eight decades in America. Robinson’s prose is witty, charming, and poignant and it takes us into Robinson’s work not just as a journalist and writer, but as a gay man who lived navigating “the often perilous social landscape of 20th century life in the United States”. It is Robinson’s sincerity and honesty that is compelling here as are the vivid details of his life as he struggles to accept himself as a gay man.

 

“Desire: A Memoir” by Jonathan Dollimore— The Meaning of Freedom

Dollimore, Jonathan. “Desire: A Memoir”, Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

The Meaning of Freedom

Amos Lassen

Jonathan Dollimore has been one of contemporary culture’s most influential critics of politics, literature, and sexuality during the last thirty years. In “Desire: A Memoir”, he explores the concept of freedom for gay men through his autobiography, meditation and philosophical reflection.

Fifty years after the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalized homosexual acts, he examines the gay sub-cultures of cities like New York, Brighton and Sydney and what the new freedoms have meant for him and others in decades that followed. He writes honestly and movingly about his teenage attraction to risk and danger; about accidents and escapes; about curiosity as a way to deal with boredom; about suicidal depression and ecstasy; and running beneath all of this is the life of desire haunted and torn by loss.

Dollimore is, quite simply, a working class man who became one of our most thoughtful intellectuals who now looks at himself and shares what he sees with us. Subtly, he writes of his compulsive experience of gay culture with does so raw candor and brutal honesty. He is a man of with yet he is tender and funny as he relates the life of desire that he has led.

Dollimore’s story is touching, haunting and heartbreaking at times. His life story is also the story of a time and “of mortal life and desire itself”. It is his self-awareness that we see in every word he uses.