Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood” by Rigoberto Gonzalez— An Immigrant Story

Gonzalez, Rigoberto. “What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood” (Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiography), University of Wisconsin Press, 2018.

An Immigrant Story

Amos Lassen

I remember clearly reading Rigoberto Gonzalez for the first time and being stunned by the beauty of his language. He has already written two volumes of memoir so I felt that I knew a great deal about him so I was surprised when this new volume came out. This is the story of love between brothers as they deal with grief, trauma, and poverty.

The Gonzalez family were Mexican immigrants to California’s Coachella Valley, and they were poor, vulnerable and illiterate. Three generations of González men turned to vices or withdrew into depression. As brothers Rigoberto and Alex grew to manhood, they were haunted by the traumas of their mother’s early death, their loneliness, their father’s desertion, and their grandfather’s abuse. Rigoberto was able to escape. He went to college and became a writer. However he was unable to escape his struggles with alcohol and abusive relationships. His brother Alex faced difficult family relations, a marriage on the rocks and fatherhood.

The brothers’ beauty came out of dark emotions and the hope they found helping each other. The Latino idea of machismo and what masculinity means always hovered over the brothers’ lives and as readers we get a look at the private lives of men, and how they manage to build strength while dealing with grief, loss, and despair.

Surely his growing up the way he did invokes anger and regret but instead of emphasizing those feelings, we get a lot about hope. Gonzalez writes with great power and emotion and I found it difficult to remain dry-eyed as I read. We see that he was able to survive through his generosity of spirit. The last two pages reduced me to weeping reader but one who loved every word of what I read here.

 

 

 

“The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading” by Edmund White— A Life Through Reading

White, Edmund. “The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading”, Bloomsbury, 2018.

A Life Through Reading

Amos Lassen

I cannot say much about Edmund White’s new book since it will not be released until June. I can tell you that it is Edmund White at his usual best as he shares his life with his readers. While he achieved fame as a writer, he looks back at other writers and their books that have influenced him thus making this a literary memoir. We see that every major event in White’s life has a book to go with it. I had a great time comparing my own reading history and was surprised to see how much we read in common. The occasions might have been different but the books were the same in most cases.

Just from having read his entire literary output, I knew that Marcel Proust was very influential on White and hear we learn that “Remembrance of Things Past” opened up the seemingly closed world of homosexuality while he was at boarding school in Michigan. White came to the poetry Ezra Pound poems through a lover he followed to New York and he tells us that one of his novels was inspired by the biography of Stephen Crane What I found especially interested was that White lost his desire to read when he had heart surgery in 2014 but it was also then that he realized the tremendous influence that books had on his life. Reading formed “his tastes, shaping his memories, and amusing him through the best and worst life had to offer.”

This new memoir looks at the various ways that reading has influenced both White, the man and his work. To do this White brings autobiography and literary criticism together. He has wonderful stories to tell about the amazing people he has met and who have shared his life.

“Never a ‘Craft’ Moment: A Memoir cum Abattoir” by Robin Anderson— A Memoir

Anderson, Robin. “Never a ‘Craft’ Moment: A Memoir cum Abattoir”, CreateSpace, 2018.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

Robin Anderson is the most prolific author I know and his tongue-in-cheek writings have kept me entertained during the 12 years I have been reviewing. Because he is such a versatile writer, it is hard to classify when he writes. It is satirical, erotic, shocking, sometimes blasphemous, adventurous and always funny; Anderson’s sense of humor is constant. I believe that he has as much fun writing them as I do reading his stories. What I really love about Robin Anderson is his the way he builds his characters. Both his plots and his characters border on the near obscene and I mean that positively. It is one think to write erotica in trash English and it is something else completely to write literary smut. Robin Anderson writes literary smut and he can do so because his use of language who is so excellent. I believe the only way to describe what he writes is outrageous.

Now in his memoir, it is difficult to know what is memory and what is imagination. Actually it makes no difference since this is a fun read. I really have no idea how to summarize the plot and even if I tried I would not do it justice. While it is not written in the stream of consciousness, it is written to take you to places you have never been before and probably never even heard of. Robin Anderson himself describes this book as a “sumptuous feast of savoury and unsavoury [the British spelling] delights” and a phrase like that shows why he is a writer and I am not. The characters that you will meet here are unlike any you have ever met and they are part of a read unlike any you have ever read before. Do as I do—float in, turn on and enjoy. More than that you do not need to do but if you feel you do want to delve deeper, that is also a possibility.

“Hiding Out: A Memoir of Drugs, Deception, and Double Lives” by Tina Alexis Allen— “Transformation, Transcendence, and Redemption”

Allen, Tina Alexis. “Hiding Out: A Memoir of Drugs, Deception, and Double Lives”, Dey Street, 2018.

“Transformation, Transcendence, and Redemption”

Amos Lassen

Actress and playwright Tina Alexis Allen has written an audacious memoir about her privileged suburban Catholic upbringing. Her father shaped that childhood by imposing religious devotion and dedication on his large family while hiding his true nature and a life defined by deep secrets and dangerous lies.

Tina is the youngest of thirteen children in a devout Catholic family in 1980s suburban Maryland in a house ruled by Sir John, her father, an imposing, British-born authoritarian who had been knighted by the Pope. He supported his family by running a successful travel agency that specialized in religious tours to the Holy Land and the Vatican for pious Catholics.

Tina was a smart-mouthed high school basketball prodigy who loved girls and this was her secret. When she was eighteen her father discovered the truth about her sexuality but instead of taking her to the family priest and making her listen to lectures and sermons, he shocked her by revealing that he also was gay. This became their shared secret and it bound them together, tearful sermons about sin and damnation, her father shocked her with his honest response. He, too, was gay.

The secret they shared about their sexualities brought father and daughter closer, and the two became trusted confidants and partners in a relationship that eventually spiraled out of control. Tina and Sir John spent nights dancing in gay clubs together, experimenting with drugs, and casual sex—all while keeping the rest of their family in the dark.

Sir John made Tina his heir apparent at the travel agency and as she became drawn deeper into the business, Tina soon became suspicious of her father’s frequent business trips, his many passports and pile of documents but especially the briefcases full of cash that mysteriously appeared and quickly vanished. As she dug for answers, she found some very disturbing information about the father she felt she knew.

What I found so amazing here is the way writer Allen brings together the themes of self-discovery, secrets and the power of truth together.

Tina was never a sweet and innocent Catholic girl. In fact, she was quite the opposite— a smart-mouthed high school basketball prodigy whose father, upon learning of her sexuality, confessed that he had buried his male lover, Omar. From that point, father and daughter became confidants and partners in a relationship that would become filled with secrets and lies. That relationship eventually spun out of control. Tina and Sir John spent nights dancing in gay clubs together, experimenting with drugs, and casual sex—all while keeping the rest of their family in the dark.  As Tina was drawn deeper into the family business, she became suspicious of her father and she soon discovered her father’s double-life and realized how little she knew about him. This is a story of “sin and service, concealment and disclosure, hedonism and righteousness” and it had me turning pages as quickly as possible.

“The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist’s Life and Work” by Howard Pollack— A Short But Bountiful Life

Pollack, Howard. “The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist’s Life and Work”, Oxford University Press, 2018.

A Short But Bountiful Life

Amos Lassen

I love the theater or go as often as I can but I must be honest here. The name John Latouche meant nothing to me before I read this biography and discovered that he ad written some of my favorite show tunes. I have since begun a search for all that the did that I know nothing about. I should have recognized his name from having listened to “Candide” and “The Golden Apple” many times but for some reason I did not make the connection.

Born into a poor Virginia family, John Treville Latouche had a short life (1914-56) yet made a profound mark on America’s musical theater as a lyricist, book writer, and librettist. “The wit and skill of his lyrics elicited comparisons with the likes of Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and Cole Porter, but he had too, noted Stephen Sondheim, ‘a large vision of what musical theater could be,’ and he proved especially venturesome in helping to develop a lyric theater that innovatively combined music, word, dance, and costume and set design.” Many of his compositions, while perhaps not commonly known are considered high points in the history of American musical theater.

Duke Ellington said that Latouche was “A great American genius”. While in his early 20s, Latouche gained the attention with his cantata for soloist and chorus, “Ballad for Americans” (1939), with music by Earl Robinson. He was also responsible for the all-black musical fable, “Cabin in the Sky” (1940), an interracial updating of John Gay’s classic, The “Beggar’s Opera” which took the new name of Beggar’s Holiday (1946). He wrote two acclaimed Broadway operas with Jerome Moross: “Ballet Ballads” (1948) and “The Golden Apple” (1954); one of the most enduring operas in the American canon, “The Ballad of Baby Doe” (1956), with Douglas Moore; and the operetta “Candide” (1956), with Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman. He also wrote cabaret songs and became involved in documentary and avant-garde film as well as translated poetry and adapted plays.

He was known all over Manhattan and was a celebrated raconteur and host and the names of his friends reads like a Who’s Who— Paul and Jane Bowles (whom he introduced to each other), Yul Brynner, John Cage, Jack Kerouac, Frederick Kiesler, Carson McCullers, Frank O’Hara, Dawn Powell, Ned Rorem, Virgil Thomson, Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams and many others. He seemed to be the draw that brought all these people together. We learn that people were drawn to him not only because of his brilliant mind but also because of his “joie de vivre” and because they loved his work.

This book draws widely on archival collections both at home and abroad and these include Latouche’s diaries and the papers of Bernstein, Ellington, Moore, Moross giving us for the first time a look at the man and his work. This is also the first book that looks at Latouche’s bouts with drinking. Latouche’s lyrics were often characterized by wit and satire just as his life had been.

“The Unsinkable Bambi Lake: A Fairy Tale Containing the Dish on Cockettes, Punks, and Angles” by Bambi Lake— Evolving or Lying?

Lake, Bambi. “The Unsinkable Bambi Lake: A Fairy Tale Containing the Dish on Cockettes, Punks, and Angles”, Manic D Press, 2017.

Evolving or Lying?

Amos Lassen

Bambi Lake shares her intimate account of one individual’s evolution from innocent, suburban Johnny Purcell in the ’60s into fabulous, infamous Bambi Lake. Nothing is off-topic in this dramatic, revealing memoir that is an updated version of the original that was published in 1996. It contains new photos and an Epilogue: “20 Years Later”.

Bambi’s story is unique and universal, fascinating and frightening and compelling. We also read about the Cockettes in this book and the punk scene in San Francisco. Bambi documents a lost era of San Francisco.

We read the truth of what San Francisco once was and Bambi includes the prurient stories of her sexual exploits. Bambi bridges the gap between Haight Street “Summer Of Love” and the early days of the Fab Mab. This is a book that shows how to be true to oneself with dignity and a sense of humor.

The book itself is a series of vignettes told in the first person and here is where I tell you that there are many detractors who claim that this is a book that is filled with lies meant to impress and amaze the reader. I am neither impressed nor amazed. I don’t know what to do with that.

“Minnesota Boy: A Memoir” by Mark Abramson— Not a Book for Mother

Abramson, Mark. “Minnesota Boy: a Memoir”, CreateSpace, 2017.

Not a Book for Mother

Amos Lassen

When Mark Abramson was going to Europe after high school, his mother told him that he should write a book about it but it took him years to do so and this is that book, although it is not the one that his mother would read. “Minnesota Boy” takes us with Abramson to college and being unlike others and trying to find a way to fit in. He shares his coming-out, his early love story and then leaving Minnesota and moving to San Francisco.

I have been a fan of Mark Abramson’s novels and I have often wondered about the man himself. We have never met but I do feel like I know something about him by just reading his writings. This is, in my opinion, his best book and a very honest look at life in the Midwest in the 1960’s.

Now this is not Abramson’s only memoir. It is a complimentary book to his “Sex, Drugs and Disco” which covers his later years. This is about his early life— his childhood, teenage years in the Heartland, a trip to Europe touring with a youth orchestra, and his college days. We see that Abramson was once a naive and well-bred young man. (He is still well-bread but I do not think that the word naïve describes him anymore. He shares his phone calls with his ailing mother who encouraged and loved him.

Her is the story of a young gay man coming of age in San Francisco in the 1970s and who documented his life and experiences. Abramson went to college in Minneapolis and it was there that he began his coming out.

Abramson cleverly ends his chapters with telephone conversations with his elderly mother and we see the wonderful relationship that they shared.This memoir covers 1970-75, and not only gives us a taste of Minnesota history and also some very personal stories that Abramson has chosen to share.

“Night Class: A Downtown Memoir” by Victor Corona— New York Nightlife

Corona, Victor. “Night Class: A Downtown Memoir”, Soft Skill Press, 2017.

New York Nightlife

Amos Lassen

NYU sociologist Victor P. Corona wanted to learn about New York City nightlife and so he partook of night classes held in galleries, nightclubs, bars, apartments, stoops, and all-night diners and he about love, loss, and the possibilities of identity. He transformed himself from an academic professor into a club-goer as he immersed himself into downtown New York where there are “dazzling tribes of artists and performers hungry for fame.”

In “Night Class: A Downtown Memoir”, Corona investigates the glamour of New York nightlife. He interviews and goes out with party people and those who influence them including Party Monster and convicted killer Michael Alig. He exposes downtown’s drugs, ambition, and power. He was a closeted, undocumented Mexican boy who became an Ivy League graduate and a nightlife writer and he shares “the thrill and tragedy of downtown and how dramatically identities can change.”

This is an original memoir about Victor Corona’s transformation from nerd to NYU’s celebrated ‘professor of nightlife ’ as well as a cultural history and ethnographic exploration of New York nightlife and the concept of self. A scholar by day and party goer by night, Corona takes sociology to the streets to show us a little known scene that takes place every night in the Big Apple. Here is the glamorous and dangerous world of downtown New York circa 2011.

Corona reminds us “of the power and primal immediacy of real, live night life.” We read of the seductive magic of the downtown club scene and those who participate in it,. This is part-memoir, part-oral history, and part-academic analysis yet it is intimate in the way it looks at the attraction of nightlife and particularly the possibility of self-fashioned identities. He examines the drive to ‘make it’ in these small subcultural scenes, writing about the heights and the pitfalls of Downtown nightlife.

Corona interviews members of Andy Warhol’s Factory, some not long before their deaths. He worked with perhaps Michael Alig after Alig was released from prison for his part in a brutal killing. He sees Alig as a man whose personality could be divided into four parts: The Thinker, the Addict, the Child and the Manipulator and the profound Thinker was overshadowed by the more dangerous other sides. We also read Corona’s own story from being illegal immigrant to becoming college student to learning to make his way around clubs and parties. He shows us a world that most of us would be uncomfortable in.

Corona takes a hard look at the people who come out to play at midnight in downtown Manhattan and shares stories of the bright and ugly sides of nightlife. He knows the scene firsthand. He is reinvented from someone who could not past the velvet rope to an insider with backstage access. Thus it is a portrait of a person and a city. Corona’s story is both prescient and poignant and always interesting. “Night Class” is a fascinating read and a compelling journey.

“House Built on Ashes: A Memoir” by Jose Antonio Rodriguez— Memories

Rodriguez, Jose Antonio. “House Built on Ashes: A Memoir”, University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.

Memories

Amos Lassen

In 2009, José Antonio Rodríguez, a doctoral student at Binghamton University in upstate New York, was packing his suitcase and getting ready to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with his parents in South Texas. He soon learned from his father that a drug cartel has overtaken the Mexican border village where he was born and because of the violence there, he won’t be able to visit his early-childhood home. Instead, he will have to rely memories to take him back.

With this, Rodríguez takes us on a meditative journey into the past. Through a series of vignettes, he gives the details of a childhood and adolescence that were filled with deprivation yet often offset by moments of tenderness and beauty. He remembers when he was four years old and his mother fed him raw sugarcane for the first time. With the sweetness of the sugar still in his mouth, he ran to a field, where he fell asleep and all was good.

When conditions of rural poverty were too much for his family to bear, Rodríguez and his mother and three of his nine siblings moved across the border to McAllen, Texas. He experienced the luxury of indoor toilets and television commercials that showed more food than he had ever seen but he also realized that there was no easy passage to gain a brighter future.

Rodriguez writes about the promises, limitations, and contradictions of the American Dream and even though this is a personal story, we see the larger issues of political, cultural, and social realities. He writes about what America is and what it is not. We see this world as one of hunger, prejudice, and too many boundaries. Rodriguez also writes of the “redemptive power of beauty and its life-sustaining gift of hope.”

“House Built on Ashes” is Rodríguez’s account of a creative, sensitive, intelligent child who grew up “not quite here and not quite there”. When he realizes that he is gay, he begins to question the traditional and antiquated customs up against a culture 0f machismo and learning “that dignity is essential but costly.”

The book has a unique and atypical structure. It isloosely chronological with the story being told in lyrical and spare prose and with great detail.

As he packed for that Thanksgiving trip, he is reminded of the world that he once lived in and states, “I think of what we lose when we win.” Reading this, we all win.

“Drama Club: A Memoir” by Mikel Gerle— Coming of Age

Gerle, Mikel. “Drama Club: a Memoir”, CreateSpace, 2017.

Coming of Age 

Amos Lassen

Coming of age is never easy but it is that much more difficult in a small town and in a family stepped in religious traditions. Here is Mikel Gerle’s story of finding a way for him and others like him to live among “the heteronormative mating rituals of small town early 80s America.”

Mikel Gerle has had quite a life. He has been a pineapple picker, ballet dancer, International Mister Leather, government bureaucrat, and yoga teacher. He has ridden his bike 545 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles four times to raise money to combat HIV, the virus he has survived since 1987. Today, he and his husband live in West Hollywood, California and share their lives with the family they have chosen.

Gerle’s “Drama Club” is a collection of essays that take us into his journey navigating prejudice, religious oppression, joy, triumph, and sexual discovery. We laugh, we cry and we smile as we read and we become curious as to what his next book will share with us.

Gerle is a excellent storyteller as he takes us to places such as Nebraska, Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. His characters are real and powerful and identifiable since so many of us have been through the kind of experiences we read about here. We have all felt alone and different, and we have all wanted to connect with others. Gerle’s personal journey through young adulthood was quite an adventure, filled with heartache and love.

We read of the struggles of growing up while being in a family that is concerned with religion, family and outlaw sexuality. It is bit easy to run away from such a life but we manage to do so.