Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Ziggy Stardust and Me” by James Brandon— Falling in Love

Brandon, James. “Ziggy, Stardust and Me”, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers,2019.

Falling In Love

Amos Lassen

“Ziggy Stardust and Me” is set in 1973, when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. The Watergate hearings were in full swing and the Vietnam War was still going on. Homosexuality was still officially considered a mental illness. We meet sixteen-year-old Jonathan Collins who has been bullied and he is anxious. He also has asthma  and is totally alone aside from his alcoholic father and a sympathetic neighbor and friend named Starla. In order to deal with this, he escapes into his imagination, where his hero David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and his mother and other dead relatives, guide him through the rough terrain of his life. Here he can be anything he wants. It so happens that Jonathan is gay undergoing conversion therapy reality so that he will be completely “normal” when he completes his treatments, he will be normal (or so he hopes). However, Web walks into his life and he is everything Jonathan wishes he could be: “fearless, fearsome and, most importantly, not ashamed of being gay.” 

Jonathan just wants to be “fixed” once and for all but he’s drawn to Web who is the first person in the real world to see Jonathan completely and think he’s perfect. Web becomes the escape that Jonathan has never known and for the first time in his life, he finally feels free enough to love and accept himself as he is. 

Quite simply, this is a beautiful book both plot-wise and prose-wise. The theme of self-acceptance, even when the world is far from accepting  works beautifully and the stream of consciousness style works wonderfully. Writer James Brandon includes historical events of the time into the story giving us a sense of reality. We enter Jonathan’s “adolescent frame of mind and sense of dignity and his search to distinguish between right and wrong.” This is an emotional story about love that just might make you weep.

“Find Me: A Novel” by Andre Aciman— Decades Later

Aciman, Andre. “Find Me: A Novel”, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2019.

Decades Later

Amos Lassen

When Andre Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name” came out in 2007,I read the entire novel in an afternoon and then dried my eyes for what seemed to be a very long time. I fell in love with the characters and with Aciman’s gorgeous prose. Then a few years later, I saw the beautiful film of the book and once more I was reduced to tears. As I read I was amazed at how a straight writer could  describe gay sex and love. As I watched the film that amazement was still there. Now we have the sequel and I am still amazed. Aciman captures the nature of love so beautifully that it becomes emotional even for those of us who read about it.

Years later, Samuel, Elio’s father, Samuel, is on a on a trip from Florence to Rome to visit Elio, now a gifted classical pianist. Samuel meets a beautiful young woman and changes and his plans. Soon after, Elio soon moves to Paris, where he has a consequential affair. Oliver is now a New England college professor with a family but suddenly thinks about returning to Europe where he and Elio once shared their love for each other. We read about the lives of Elio and Oliver during the years (20) they spent apart and Aciman captures these through scenes and themes of loneliness, love and how it is to lead a half-life hoping for an end to unbearable solitariness.

Twenty years after Elio and Oliver’s summer, Oliver is estranged from his wife and Samuel is dead. Aciman knows how to write passion with all of its details and nuances. Do we think that Oliver and Elio will come back together? Since we have to wait until the end of October find out, It is your guess here now. Using themes of “fatherhood, music, the nature of time and fate, the weight and promise of the past”, Aciman is able to make them come alive by the use of tenderness and eroticism.

“Like A Love Story” by Abdi Nazemian— New York City, 1989

Nazemian, Abdi. “Like a Love Story”,  Balzer & Bray, 2019.

New York City, 1989

Amos Lassen

In 1989, Reza an Iranian boy, moved to New York City with his mother to live with his stepfather and stepbrother. He’s terrified that someone will guess that he is gay, something he doesn’t want to acknowledge himself even though he knows that it is true. He does not know much about being gay but he has seen the media’s images of men dying of AIDS.

Judy is a fashion designer who worships her uncle Stephen, a gay man with AIDS who is an activist and member of ACT UP. Judy falls for Reza and they start dating. Art is Judy’s best friend and he is their school’s only out and proud teen. He has no intention of being who his conservative parents want him to be nor does he want to be and so he rebels by documenting the AIDS crisis through his photographs.

As Reza and Art become close, Reza struggles to find a way out of his deception that won’t break Judy’s heart and ruin his most meaningful friendship. Three characters discover their inner truths at a terrible time  for the gay community. It is the height of the 1980s AIDS crisis and we meet “warriors, divas, artists, queens, individuals, activists, trend setters, and anyone searching for the courage to be themselves.”
Friends here become family and we see a society that is not always compassionate to those who need compassion. If you lived through the epidemic like I did, you know what I am speaking about. Abdi Nazemian deftly shows how we can only move forward by examining and embracing our past. Anger and injustice indeed can help make for a better and more hopeful tomorrow.

While the book is about the LGBTQ community, it is not a book just for the community. This is a book about life with real  characters who experience their own sexual awakening. Reza, Art, and Judy are all going through self-discovery. It is really intense for Reza and Art because of the fear and stigma that comes with being gay at a time when AIDS is everywhere and feared and gays are regarded as outcasts. They have Judy and her Uncle Stephen to help them as they accept themselves and face the battles ahead.

Nazemian kept me weeping as I read not just because of the plot but also because of the beauty of language and the description of a heartbreaking and uncertain time in our  history.

Reza learns to accept himself and Nazemian perfectly captured the fear of that era and what it was like to be a young gay man. Through the characters, Reza grew and blossomed.

Nazemian has written a “love letter to queerness, self-expression, and individuality (also Madonna) that never shies away from the ever-present fear within the queer community of late ’80s New York”. In doing so, he gave us feelings of “hope, love, courage, pride, and awe for the many people who fought for love and self-expression in the face of discrimination, cruelty, and death.”

“All the Dirty Parts” by Daniel Handler— Sex and Young People

Handler, Daniel. “All the Dirty Parts”, Bloomsbury, Reprint, 2019.

Sex and Young People

Amos Lassen

Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts” looks at teenage desire in today’s culture of explicitness in which sex is common and love is not so common. We have short chapters that give us a tender, brutal, funny, intoxicating portrait of an age through the lens of sex tilts. Cole, our teenaged main character, tells us that “There are love stories galore…This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.”

Cole is in high school. He runs, sketches, has friends. But it is sex that drives him. He fantasizes about whomever he’s looking at. He loves pornography and he sleeps with a lot of girls giving him a not-so-nice reputation around school. Soon it is just him and his best friend for company until something startling starts to happen between them that might be what he’s been after all this time  but then he meets Grisaille.

This is a coming of age story that hides nothing and the language is quite bold making this “An irreverent, intimate glimpse inside adolescent desire, sexual identity, and emotional discovery.”  It is an honest look at the sexuality of adolescent boys as well as a commentary on today’s youth. Cole is who he is because he has been more or less bred by society to be just that. The characters here struggle with “the pursuit of pleasure and the other parts of their lives” including searching for identity.

Daniel Handler is known for his series of Lemony Snickett books and he really changes course here.  Written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness/coming-of-age tale,  there is standard plot. What is surprising is that we get those parts which are usually edited out of novels for young adults.

Cole is a horny  egoist 17-year old male whose female sexual conquests are in double-digits, and have given him a not-so-nice reputation among his high school peers. When he isn’t hooking up with his classmates, he’s trades internet porn with best friend, Alec, who lives through Cole’s adventures. He demands that Cole tell him everything, including “all the dirty parts”. When Cole is not sexually active and/or having a dry spell (for him, anyway), he and Alec wind up watching porn together, and one thing leads to another and keeps going. When things seem to getting hot between Cole and Alec, an exotic foreign exchange student, Grisaille comes to their school and she has an appetite for sex that rivals Cole’s.

This is quite a short book that is erotic but never would I say that it is pornographic. There is nothing fake about Cole; he is who he is and happily so. He is both authentic and callous and he is also surprisingly vulnerable.

By the end of the novel, we realize that we have read a morality tale that ends quite ambiguously. It is left to the reader’s imagination as to what happens next in Cole’s life  and this is perfect when we reflect on the kind of character that he is.

“How to Be a Good Gay Bottom” by Ryan Field— No Wonder It is Published by the Author

Field, Ryan. “How to Be a Good Gay Bottom”, Ryan Field Press, 2019.

No Wonder It is Published by the Author

Amos Lassen

I have nothing against self-published books and in fact many of the books I have read and enjoyed have been self-published but there are always exceptions and this is one. I doubt if any publishing house would have this title. Ryan Field says he has been writing gay books for 20 years and I don’t doubt that. I have read several of his books and I have always felt that I am reading the same book with a different title and with characters who have different names. It takes quite a bankroll to publish as many titles as Field has done and a sense a strong sense of narcissism. It is very difficult to move from being a hack writer to being a good writer and I have been waiting in vain to see that happen here.

I am no prude but I do find the title offensive but then if you have a look at any of the reviews of Field’s work and see who reviews him, you might understand this a bit better. Paul, a gay virgin, who is “not only terrified of anal sex he doesn’t even know how to be a gay bottom.” He meets Gordon who is running for Governor as an openly gay man, and Paul absolutely despises the dirty business of politics yet he continues to see Gordon, because “there’s something decent about Gordon he can’t ignore.” Gordon makes him feel like the kind of man he’s always wanted to be, and for this Paul is determined to learn how to be a good gay bottom, and he will let nothing stand in his way to get there. Veys mir—the things we do for love—he hates the man’s politics but the man makes him feel good so he gives up his virginity. He probably should have learned to be a good top instead.

“Overthrow: A Novel” by Caleb Crain— A Thriller About Contemporary Manners

 

Crain, Caleb. “Overthrow: A Novel”, Viking, 2019.

A Thriller About Contemporary Manners

Amos Lassen

In Caleb Crain’s brilliant new novel, “Overthrow” of how we live today, we meet Mitchell, a graduate student as he is walking home. He sees Leif on his skateboard and is immediately attracted to him. As the two men chat, Leif invites Matthew to meet some of his tarot card experimenting friends who claim that it is quite easy to discover what people think. Before long, Matthew who should be working on his dissertation, is both involved in the group and quickly falling in  love with Leif, after all, they do share a love of poetry.

When the group visits the Occupy movement’s encampment, “they hope their ideas about radical empathy will help heal a divided world and destabilize the 1%.” Instead they have trouble with a freelancing security contractor. They eat and at the faith and on the powers they’ve been nurturing damaging love relationships. Elspeth and Raleigh, two of Leif’s oldest friends, are tested and must see if  their relationship can stand criminal charges; Chris and Julia, have their loyalties tested; and Matthew is forced to decide exactly what he owes Leif to maintain his love entranced by the man at the center of it all, will have to decide what he owes Leif and how much he’s willing to give him.  The characters face “a time of reckoning with the ambiguous nature of transparency and with the insidious natures of power and privilege. This is the story of what can happen as a result of searching for a new morality in a world controlled by technology, law and surveillance that change our boundaries and who we are. In this kind of world ambiguity and unease are characteristic of how we live and love.

Writer Crain examines candor, truth and the utopian spirit in the modern world that is controlled by  technology and surveillance. Written in gorgeous lyrical prose we see that being aware is the best way to defend ourselves during these changing times. Our story is told as an intimate love story that is both romantic and realistic and also terrifying.
The Occupy moment has made a stronger critique of capitalism popular  and led to overt forms of surveillance. As our characters deal with strains on their friendships, we see how surveillance affects how we think, relate and communicate to each other. I was totally engrossed the entire read and am still thinking about it.

“Going Dutch: A Novel” by James Gregor— A Look at How Some Live

Gregor, James. “Going Dutch: A Novel”, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

A Look At How Some Live

Amos Lassen

In “Going Dutch: A Novel”, author James Gregor wonderfully captures how his main characters thinks and that he sees himself as sympathetic even when he behaves in a horrible manner. Gregor explores contemporary social mores in a wonderful novel that keeps you turning pages as fast as you can.

Richard is a graduate student who is tired of the gay dating scene and he is lonely even though he is rarely alone. Still in his twenties, he is constantly surrounded by friends but that does not help his sense of alienation. He is anxious and is dealing with severe writer’s block and this could damage his graduate funding, make him poor,  without direction and single.

Anne, his brilliant classmate offers to write his papers in exchange for his company even though he is obviously gay. But he needs her help, and it’s nice that Anne has brought him into her lifestyle. As might be expected, what started as a relationship based upon help becomes a great deal more complex.

Then a one-night-stand with Blake, a good looking and successful lawyer is becoming more serious and Richard is unable to cut himself off from Anne and her lifestyle of privilege. Both of Richard’s relationships head toward something more serious and he realizes that from which not much good can come.

This novel is a look at relationships today’s digital age as well is an exploration of love and sexuality, and what we seek from and do to each other. Every few pages we find some kind of look that brings us to laugh, to be mortified and to admire and this is no easy task for a writer. Gregor gives us a look at contemporary social mores.

The plot, the characters and the relationships are deeply engaging and the prose is lyrical. There are notable secondary characters and he way he writes about New York liberal intelligentsia is wonderfully satirical. Richard’s double life must come crashing down and when it does, it is spectacular. The three main characters are human and very complicated and they share what they think about life.  We see what Richard can’t—that his actions are driven by shame and insecurity.

Richard does not move forward because that’s the choice he has made. He relies on pity and sympathy and he is unable to make a choice. He’s self-centered and has no sense of no morality. Most of us will not agree with many of the choices that the characters make.  We spend six months with Richard and learn that he relies on stipends for his studies to finance his existence. In addition to lavishing money on him, Anne does some of his academic work and when the relationship begins to take a new direction, Richard begins to question his sexuality. With Blake things become ever more complicated. All that Richard can bring to any relationship is to make the other person feel needed.

We hope that Richard might grow up and become a better man. He isn’t lovable or fascinating but what is unique is that the book is. The idea of gay millennials trying to survive the modern online dating scene to find the right person is great but let’s face it, no one in this novel is likeable yet taken as a whole, the read is a very fine experience.

 

 

 

“On Division: A Novel” by Goldie Goldbloom— Looking In

Goldbloom, Goldie. “On Division: A Novel”,  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Looking In

Amos Lassen

Goldie Goldbloom’s “On Division” is a  rare look inside Brooklyn’s Chasidic community”. Surie Eckstein who is soon to be a great-grandmother in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where she lives on Division Avenue. She is mother to ten children who range in age from thirteen to thirty-nine. Her in-laws are postwar immigrants from Romania and live on the first floor of their house. Her daughter Tzila Ruchel lives on the second floor and on the third floor live Surie and Yidel, her husband who is a scribe in such high demand that he only writes a few Torah scrolls a year. They married when Surie was sixteen and have had a good and happy marriage and full lives. Now, at the ages of fifty-seven and sixty-two, they are looking forward to spend some quiet time together.

But that does not look like it will happen since Surie is pregnant again and at her age, pregnancy is thought to be “an aberration, a shift in the proper order of things, and a public display of private life.”  Suddenly Surie feels exposed and ashamed and she is unable to tell anyone the news, not even her husband. Her secret slowly separates her from the community.

Here is her story and we see that she is experiencing a new beginning during middle age. This is  also  a look at the dynamics of self and collective identity as we look at an insular community. But that is not all. Surie’s secret becomes enmeshed with another, earlier secret—about her son Lipa, who is gay.

Not only is Surie, a wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, she is an upstanding citizen in her community where conformity is the only way of life. She knows that her friends and neighbors will turn their backs on her and her children if anybody finds out that she is pregnant and she doesn’t know how to tell her husband the news and fears the results when he finds out. 

As we learn about Surie, we also learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the Chassidic community. Goldie Goldbloom shares this with us and she does so with dignity and respect. I found it interesting that pregnancy which is usually seen as a blessing is seen here as something else. A woman in Surie’s position is bound to have to deal with unpleasantries because of it.  

This is the story of a woman’s struggle for her identity as she deals with family secrets, cultural expectations and gender roles. It is the story of Suri a 57 year old woman from Brooklyn’s strict Chasidic Jewish sect. Suri lives a life that is fairly regimented and revolves around structure built by her religious beliefs and customs. When  we learn the Suri is pregnant, well past menopause, we understand what she must deal with and because of her age and the fact that she is carrying two babies, yes twins, she is high risk. This means that she must visit the clinic every week. During these visits, she develops relationships with the staff of the clinic even though her culture forbids her to do so. She eventually begins to volunteer first as a translator and then as an assistant to midwives and she finds great happiness in this.  She still manages to hide the news of her pregnancy from her husband and her family. In fact she puts the fact that she is pregnant in the back of her mind and allows past issues in the family come forward.

Surie knows  it  is selfish for her to want to keep the babies because, bringing them into the world will bring shame on her family and expose the private intimacy she shares with her husband. (After all, women in their 50’s do not have sex?).

There are no options. She becomes close to Val, a midwife who was actually present at the birth of all of Surie’s children. This  bond allows Val a chance to see the  Chassidic community close up, and it allows Surie to step away from her community for the first time.

I love that writer Goldbloom uses great detail to describe life in the community as well as the celebrations of the Jewish holidays. Along with that  we see how those who do not fit into the demands of the community are regarded. Community can be both a comfort and it can also cause fear and if there is something important to be learned from the entertaining read that the book provides is that we all must be open to and accepting of others and to live your life within a ghetto is not to live a full life.

I so enjoyed this book and it brought back so many memories of how I was raised. “On Division” covers many topics from religion and love, loss and families, marriage and traditions and the choices we make. The scenes of Surie with her son Lipa are heart wrenching and beautiful.
The characters live according to the many rules and regulations that have been handed down in her sect for generations. They live by the same rules that did their ancestors and there is poignant beauty in that.

What is really interesting is that Goldbloom lives on Chicago’s North Side near Skokie, and has eight children, most of whom are now adults. Her children swore her to secrecy when she decided to become a writer and she is not allowed to write stories about them or speak about them to the press. Originally from a farm in Australia, she says that the reason she stayed in Chicago is because she likes Lake Michigan and she loves the “wonderfully kind and funny and real Midwesterners.”

Aside from writing, Goldbloom works for queer visibility in the Chicago Chasidic community. She says, “I am the only out queer person that I know who is still living a Chasidic life in the community.” “Queer Orthodox Jews with unaccepting families face a loss of God, hope and community.”

The novel affected me deeply,probably because I identified with so much in it. When I tell people how I grew up living like that,  they are stunned that I indeed got through it and that I am willing to talk about it. We the joy of belonging to a community as well as the feelings of frustration at its rules and laws. Goldbloom explores complicated questions about community and individuality and she does so with great wit, humor and sensitivity.

Surie grabbed me early on and I could tell she was not going to let go. I laughed with her and I ached with her and felt the pains of being included and excluded, the wonders and joys of tradition, and the difficulties of coming to terms with oneself. This is “a novel of wisdom and uncertainty, of love in its greater and lesser forms, and of the struggle between how it should be and how it is.” ―Amy Bloom, author of “White Houses”.

“The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart” by R. Zamora Linmark— First Love, First Heartbreak

Linmark, R. Zamora. “The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart”, Delacorte, 2019.

First Love, First Heartbreak

Amos Lassen

When Ken Z meets Ran at the mall, his life changes and that is because he also met his first love. Ran introduces him to his first kiss but Ran is mysterious and he suddenly disappears. This makes Ken wonder why he should ever love if this is what happens.
With the help of his best friends, his haikus and lists, and  strange, surreal appearances by his hero, Oscar Wilde, Ken discovers that love is worth so much more than the price of heartbreak.

What a great imagination R. Zamora Linmark has. He has written a sweet story that is a celebration of diversity centered around a gay romance. We all remember our first lover and how that love affected us. When we first meet Ken Z, he is slowly figuring out who he is (with the help of his mentor: Oscar Wilde). 
One day he decides to go to the other side of the territory he lives in which is much nicer but stricter. He pretends to be an archeologist on a tight budget and gets to see how the other half lives. While he’s there, he meets Ran, who sits down with him at a restaurant and talks to him about Oscar Wilde. They become fast friends even with the distance between them.

They begin to visit each other and their bonds deepen, and Ken Z chats with his hero for guidance. Oscar Wilde takes him to the realization that they are more alike than they think. Ken Z and Ran fall in love fast and hard, until one day Ran went away. There was no warning and Ken Z was left grieving and began to push away from everyone in his life, including Oscar.

Unfortunately we never get to know the characters well enough. Aside from their common love for Oscar Wilde, we really know nothing about them.

“Le Mystereieux Correspondant” by Marcel Proust— Proust’s Gay Stories Are Coming To Us

“Le Mystereieux Correspondant”

Proust’s Gay Stories Are Coming To Us

Amos Lassen

Nine lost stories by Marcel Proust that were written in the late 1890s and not published and entitled “Le Mystérieux Correspondant” will be published this fall. Many think that they were not published is because is that Proust felt they were audacious. Proust was in his 20’s when he wrote these.

They were discovered by the late Proust specialist Bernard de Fallois, whose publishing house Editions de Fallois will publish them in French in October under the title Le Mystérieux Correspondant (The Mysterious Correspondent).

De Fallois has  said the stories are a mix of fairytales, fantasy and dialogues with the dead and in them we see where Proust got his ideas for “À la recherche du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”), which was published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927.

The nine stories were secret and Proust never spoke of them”.  Most of the texts are about the awareness of his homosexuality and were written in a darkly tragic way.  Proust never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, and actually fought a duel with a reviewer who suggested that he was gay. He wanted to make love to other men and he was determined not to be labeled as  homosexual.

Luc Fraisse, a professor at the University of Strasbourg, has annotated and edited the stories for the forthcoming 176 paged book which is being published to commemorate the centenary of Proust winning France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, for “À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs” (“Within a Budding Grove”).

Proust was afraid that the stories could have offended a social milieu where strong traditional morals prevailed.  The main theme of the stories is an analysis of “the physical love so unjustly denied” that Proust writes of in his masterwork and to tell the public about  “Sodome et Gomorrhe”, the fourth volume of the series  and in which Proust explores homosexual love.

The stories are an intimate diary of the writer “The awareness of homosexuality is experienced in an exclusively tragic way, as a curse. We don’t find, anywhere, those comic notes introduced here and there throughout “In Search of Lost Time” which give the work all the colors of life, even in the darkest dramas.”

Proust had already, in the unpublished stories, found his “perfect mastery of expression”. While they are not as precise as “In Search of Lost Time”, but they help us understand it better, but showing us what from where it came.

Proust died in 1922 at the age of 51, after pneumonia became bronchitis and then he developed an abscess on the lungs. One of his obituaries described him as “very pale, with burning black eyes, frail and short in stature”. It also acknowledged that “of all idols and masters of present-day literature in France he is most likely to have won a place which time will not take away”.