Category Archives: GLBT fiction

“Chronicles of Spartak: Freedom’s Hope” by Steven A. Coulter— San Francisco in the 22nd Century

Coulter, Steven A. “Chronicles of Spartak: Freedom’s Hope”, Jubilation Media, 2018.

San Francisco, the 22nd Century

Amos Lassen

A little over a year ago, I received a copy of Steven Coulter’s “Chronicles of Spartak: Rising Son” and I was a bit dismayed on how to approach it. By and large, I do not read science fiction and thought this might hinder how I feel about the book. On the other hand, I know how much work goes into writing a book and I believe that our literature must be read and spoken about. The surprise came in how much I enjoyed the read even though my mind was conditioned to not like it.

I noted in my review that it seemed to me that “Rising Son” left the door open for a sequel and now we have “Freedom’s Hope” and while it is a sequel each book stands alone and on its own. Even though this is true let me refresh my reader’s mind as to just who Spartak is.

When he was sixteen-years-old, Spartak Jones was betrayed, kidnapped and sold. this was in the year 2115 and America is split into factions and the ruling elite are involved in a power struggle. Spartak becomes a hero as he fights for right. His

exploits are famous and they have indirectly caused the feeling of liberalism to again take hold in underground and he becomes a symbol of hope for the people representing both what was and what can be. And just to note, Spartak is gay but his

sexuality is a non-issue. He immediately wins us over with his personality and his prowess. Writer Steven Coulter sharply and adroitly manages to mix in themes from what we are experiencing in our culture today to give relevance to the story and he gives us a hero who thinks as much of others as he thinks of himself and he champions equality and peace in a world where that does not seem likely.

In looking at the new volume, “Freedom’s Hope”, I suppose we can say that it is about a young man who finds love as a revolution takes place all around him We move ahead to the year 2116, Spartak is now 17 and the war between the ruling classes is picking up momentum. He has now become his own man after the terrible ordeal of having been kidnapped in “Rising Son”. The liberal underground uses his wholesome and swashbuckling image to build support for democracy even while others plot Spartak’s destruction. From the Space Elevator, some 22,000 miles above the earth, Spartak and Zinc McClain, scion of the nation’s richest family, begin “an audacious scheme to thwart a religious war and a military coup.” From this point on things move very quickly and writer Coulter wonderfully brings together science fiction, fantasy and politics.

There is so much to like about this book and its characters and I found myself reading the entire book in one sitting after having shut myself off from the rest of the world. I deliberately have said very little about the plot because I learned that when I tried to do so I was also writing a spoiler so you will have to take my word for it and read this. I am sure that our opinions will be in sync.

“Paper is White” by Hilary Zaid— The Pull of the Past

Zaid, Hilary. “Paper is White”, Bywater Books, 2018.

The Pull of the Past

Amos Lassen

Whether we realize it or not, the past is always with us and memory is one of the defining human characteristics. In “Paper is White”, writer Hilary Zaid takes us on an exploration of survival, secrets, memory and love through her very fresh and original characters. I was totally involved already by the second page and had to force myself to leave the book to get something to eat. It has been a long time since a book affected me so deeply.

Ellen Margolis is assistant curator at the Foundation for the Preservation of Memory in San Francisco and her job entails recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors before they are all gone forever. That time is coming on us very quickly and what happened during the Holocaust has become part of the psyche of many. Ellen understand about the Holocaust since her parents and grandmother survived that horrible period in human history and she considers herself able to hold her emotions in. However, when she and her girlfriend decide to marry, the ghost of the past decide to pay her a visit. As they move closer to enjoying the benefits of marriage equality, Ellen feels a need to look at the legacy of intergenerational silence and she is drawn into a clandestine entanglement with a woman who is a Holocaust survivor and who seems to have more to hide than to share. Ellen is soon involved in a search for buried history. She decides that if there is to be a wedding, she must realize how much she can share with the woman she loves.

Zaid’s novel is set in the 1990s in the San Francisco of the dot.com era and it looks at the pull of the past and how it affects the present and what we must do in order to feel whole and complete. Like many others, I have been inundated with writing about the Holocaust and had more or less pushed it to the side for the next few years. After all, how many times can we read the same thing over and over. In order to make a book about the Holocaust interesting reading, new approaches must be found in how to deal with it and that is what Hilary Zaid has done here. Her story is inventive and tender and that is just the first of many innovations here. She faces the silences of those who came before her and works her way through them and we are along for the ride. The stories we have heard in the past, haunt us in the present but we ca never allow us to forget about an entire group of people being forced off the face of the earth because of their beliefs. We see how silence can either be just that or a weapon. We also see the importance of love and that it is redemptive. Granted I have been tight-lipped about what happens here but that is deliberate for I do not want anyone to approach this book with ideas in their heads. In approaching the past, we are also approaching life and while the stories may haunt us forever, that is not a bad thing. I was in love with the beauty of the prose here and the freshness of the topic. This is a read that you do not want to miss … and there is wonderful humor here.

“Another Morocco: Selected Stories” by Abdellah Taia— Revelation and Concealment

Taia, Abdellah. “Another Morocco: Selected Stories”, (translated by Rachael Small), Semiotext(e) / Native Agents, 2017.

Revelation and Concealment

Amos Lassen

Abdellah Taia brings us stories of life in North Africa that deal with strategies of revelation and concealment. Taia is by the first openly gay writer to be published in Morocco.

In 2006, Taïa returned to his native Morocco to promote the Moroccan release of his second book, Le rouge du tarbouche ( The Red of the Fez). While on tour with the book, he was interviewed by a reporter for the French-Arab journal Tel Quel, who was intrigued by the themes of homosexuality she saw in his writing and Taïa, who had not publically come out was afraid of the repercussions for himself and his family because in his country, homosexuality continues to be outlawed. He agreed to do the interview and a subsequent profile, “Homosexuel envers et contre tous” (“Homosexual against All Odds”). This made him the first openly gay writer to be published in Morocco.

“Another Morocco” takes short stories from Taïa’s first two books, Mon Maroc ( My Morocco) and Le rouge du tarbouche, both of which had been published before the interview. In the stories we meet a young writer testing boundaries and “flirting with strategies of revelation and concealment.” These are tales of life in a working-class Moroccan family, of a maturing writer’s relationship with language and community, and of the many cities and works that have inspired him. The stories are eye opening and beautifully written. Taia writes with a reverence for the subaltern and for the strength of women and the disenfranchised. He writes of humanity and ‘the construction of the self against forces that would invalidate its very existence.’ His writings are therefore political.

“Postcards from the Canyon” by Lisa Gitlin— A Rebellious Existence

Gitlin, Lisa. “Postcards from the Canyon”, Bywater Books, 2017.

A Rebellious Existence

Amos Lassen

A few years ago I read Lisa Gitlin’s “I Came Out for This” and was moved to tears by the beautiful language and sensitive story. Since that time the book sits in a special place in my Jewish and Gay Library. I had not thought much about it lately but then “Postcard from the Canyon” arrived and I was so happy to see a new book from an author whose work I lived so much. I cleared my day and sat down to read and soon realized that I was having the same emotional sense that I had when I first read her previous book and suddenly every thing in life felt good.

We meet novelist Joanna Jacobs who is dealing with the sudden and totally unexpected death of her mother. She is disillusioned by her writing career and has begun to write bout her childhood in Cleveland in the 1960s. She was doing so in the hopes of refocusing but actually finds herself writing a journal of her own rebelliousness. Being a member of two minorities, Jewish and gay, she is unwillingly to endure the scrutiny and the rejection that comes with being different. Her youth was chaotic and filled with her denial of who she was. The backdrop of the times included the Kennedy assassination, the new music racial problems and white flight, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Joanna was guilty of her own internalized homophobia. She was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward where se realized that life was fun but leaving it, as she had to, made her realize that age and maturity change the way people think and that childhood is a temporary state.

It was how she felt about herself and her crazy home life that caused her to act out in all kinds of ways— she led a neighborhood campaign to torment a lesbian couple and she became her school’s number one behavior problem. Her behavior was alarming to all around her (except her parents who saw her as perfect). This is what led to psychiatric ward, where she fell in love with the nurses and some of the adult patients and became friends with a bunch of crazy kids, and has so much fun that she never wants to leave.

When we move forward some fifty years, Joanna is in New York and writing a book as a try at regaining control of her life. The world she writes about is much different than the one she lives in and her personal life is certainly not what it should be. The friends that she had as a girl are still with her as an adult and one of them has remained a close friend. The other friend is the object of Joanna’s ire.

After a bomb threat to a conservative talk-show host, the FBI comes to her and she is soon involved in “an unexpected immigrant invasion, a crew of juvenile delinquents in her living room, and a never ending low pressure system.” Things have become too difficult for her to handle by herself and she turns to her friends only to discover that there are unresolved issues between them.

“Postcards from the Canyon” is a look at Joanna’s “changing world, where control is an illusion and chaos offers shelter from an unrelenting storm.”

 

 

“Nice Jewish Boys” by Sarah L. Young— A New Reality

Young, Sarah L. “Nice Jewish Boys”, Less Than Three Press, 2017.

A New Reality

Amos Lassen

At first, Avishai Miller seems to be a typical kid. However his mother is dead, he barely speaks to his father, and he’s secretly dating Noah, a male classmate at his Jewish private school. When their relationship is discovered, everything they know changes, and they struggle to find their place in a new, unwelcoming reality.

When I was a youngster, I thought that I was the only gay teen in the world but now I know I was not alone. Avishai was lucky to have Noah so they could navigate life together. Noah and Avishai are characters that we can relate to and it is quite easy to love them just as they love each other. However, of course this is no Utopia for the boys— they face challenges within their community and with their parents, but they work things out together. They have some serious issues that to face just as all LGBT youth do. I just wish there had been a book like this when I was growing up.

There are no great surprises or earth shattering revelations but that is just fine. We are empathetic to the boys who face very real challenges. I understand that the author wrote this when she was just 15 years old and for that alone she must be commended.

The development of the characters throughout the book portrays the reality of how people can grow. It is fascinating to read about being gay and Jewish in characters that are so young. We do not often get observant Jewish gay characters in gay literature

I really love how the boys deal with the consequences in a Jewish religious environment.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin— A Family Story

Benjamin, Chloe. “The Immortalists”, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018.

A Family Story

Amos Lassen

If Chloe Benjamin’s “The Immortalists” had a subtitle it would be, “If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?” Here is a family saga that spans fifty years and begins in 1969 on New York City’s Lower East Side with the news that a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die has come to town. The Gold children, four adolescents sneak out to hear their fortunes. What they learns charts the next fifty years of their lives. “The Immortalists” is a novel that examines destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next in a powerful story about how and what we believe and family.

We begin when Varya is 13, Daniel is 11, Klara is 9 and Simon is 7. They come from a religious Jewish family and they are close to both mother and father. Anxious to hear the psychic, they each meet with her individually and she tells them each the day they will die. At first, we do not know whether or not they shared this information with each other. We know that some of the kids are upset, in particular young Simon, but even Klara and Daniel seem shaken. Varya, however, has been told she will have a very long life.

Each of four sections follows the life of one of the children. We learn what happens to each and whether or not the psychic was right about the date of their death. Gradually we learn what each of the children were told and how the prophecy affected their lives.

WE explore how the knowledge and/or the fear of one’s date of death can affect how one lives their life and whether this knowledge becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or whether it can easily be changed by one’s own choices and free-will.

Each section poses different answers to the question of whether or not it’s better to know when our lives will end and just what consequences could follow. Be prepared to clear a large block of time because once you begin reading, you will not be able to stop.

I found myself recognizing parts of my own life in the lives of the siblings especially when we see that as they grow and mature, they decide to either stay close to New York and their Jewish roots or get as far away from home as quickly as they can. We find ourselves caring about the characters and writer Benjamin has the ability to bring places to life through her descriptions. Theirs is both sadness and love in “The Immortalists” just as there is in life. We see the opposing factors counterbalances by their opposites in the children’s mother Gertie who is both their strength and their nemesis in the same way their Jewish heritage comforts and repels them. The kids remain connected between when they seem to be hating and criticizing one another.

We all intellectually understand that that death is an inevitable fact of life but how does knowing the exact date death influence the way we make life choices? Is knowing when we die a blessing or a curse? Does it influence religious/spiritual beliefs? Does the date indicate predestination or a self-fulfilling prophecy? These questions are present throughout the read. The impact of this knowledge is seen as each sibling approaches the predicted date of death. With the exception of one of them, they never discuss this among themselves. In fact, they seem to grow more distant emotionally and physically with each passing year, yet they are all acutely aware of the prophecy that binds them together.

We read of the four lives from 1978 to 2010 during which various relevant social issues are introduced including the start of the AIDS epidemic, the war in Afghanistan and animal research. Even though the characters are not always admirable or likeable (who is?), they are always relatable.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Simon escapes to the West Coast and searches for love in ’80s San Francisco; Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician and is obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

There is suspense that comes from the characters as we examine issues of mortality and immortality, destiny and self-determination, magic and science, and the past and the future.

“My Ex-Life” by Stephen McCauley— A Formerly Married Couple

McCauley, Stephen. “My Ex-Life”, Flatiron, 2018.

A Formerly Married Couple

Amos Lassen

You are going to have to wait until May to red Stephen McCauley’s new book but I have been lucky enough to get advance news about it. “My Ex-Life”

is about a formerly married couple that haven’t seen each other in many years. David has spent the last twenty years as a gay man who helps spoiled San Francisco teens get into colleges and Julie, is a twice-divorced mother and a middle-aged pot-head who has turned her falling-apart house into a Bed & Breakfast.

David’s is getting no pleasure from his job and boyfriend, Soren, has left him for another man and he. David’s life seems to be spiraling downhill and he has put on weight. The only pleasure he gets is looking at the view of San Francisco he has from his under market value apartment. But his landlord has decided to see the building and to add further insult, he is selling it to Soren and the surgeon.

Julie is also having problems. isn’t having much of a better time herself. She has become friendly with Carol, the woman that Harry, her second husband, left her for and Julie ignores bills by throwing into them into the back seat of her car. Mandy, her teenage daughter refuses to apply to college and Julie can’t seem to quite smoking marijuana. Harry lets her know that if Mandy does not begin applying to colleges, she will come and live with him and Carol. A surprise comes when Mandy lies says that she’s been working with David Hedges, Julie’s first husband. Julie calls David and asks if he’ll help Mandy who tells him that he should come visit them and stay in one of their B&B rooms and he accepts.

It does not take long before David and Julie are living together and pick up where their marriage ended. There is still chemistry between them but… Below is praise from those who have read the book.

My Ex-Life is a pleasure of the deepest sort; it’s a wise, ruefully funny, and ultimately touching exploration of mid-life melancholy and unexpected second chances. Stephen McCauley is a wonderful writer, and this may be his best book yet.” ―Tom Perrotta, bestselling author of Mrs. Fletcher

My Ex-Life is a rich, yet delicate ragout of wonderfully vivid characters, hilarious dialogue, and spot-on cultural criticism. It satisfies on every level.” ―Richard Russo, bestselling author of Everybody’s Fool

“Before you read My Ex-Life, make sure the person you sleep with is willing to be woken constantly by your laughter. Stephen McCauley writes sparkling, graceful, witty prose with an ease and fluency that seems like sleight-of-hand. If I were the kind of reader who highlighted brilliant passages, the whole entire book would be underlined.” ―Katherine Heiny, author of Standard Deviation

“From the first page of My Ex-Life, I was sending Stephen McCauley mental valentines and figurative fan notes, thanking him for this delicious, smart, funny novel, its endearing characters, and his wry, big-hearted cynicism. Oh, if all books could be like this one!” ―Elinor Lipman, author of On Turpentine Lane

My Ex-Life is Steve McCauley’s best novel so far and that’s saying a lot. For those of us who devoured his previous books and eagerly awaited another, My Ex-Life is cause for celebration. McCauley’s trademark wit and cultural commentary is all here, as is a cast of smart, complicated, heart-sore characters…. You’re going to love My Ex-Life.” ―Anita Diamant, author of The Boston Girl and The Red Tent

“This wonderful novel has its finger on the pulse of the present, but the questions it asks about family and the ineluctable past and the strange, sustaining grace of friendship are as timeless as the elegance and craft of its prose. Stephen McCauley is a master, one of our wisest and funniest observers of American life.” ―Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

“The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves: A Novel” by James Han Mattison— The Mystery of Life

Mattison, James Han. “The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves: A Novel”, Little A, 2017.

The Mystery of Life

Amos Lassen

Through first-person narratives, e-mails, gay chat-room exchanges, and other fragments “The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves” looks at the mystery of a life through the themes of despair and regret, humor and wonder, courage and connection.

A heartbroken and humiliated Ricky Graves was a heartbroken kid who had been humiliated one too many times and he took the life of a classmate and himself. Some five months after this his small New Hampshire community is still in shock and mourning. Ricky’s sister, Alyssa, comes home to confront her mother and deal with her guilt over the brother she left behind. Mark McVitry was the only survivor of the shooting that was sparked by his own cruelty and he is now tormented by visions of Ricky’s vengeful spirit. Ricky’s surrogate older brother, Corky Meeks, struggles with doubts about the young and fragile boy he tried to protect but who he may have doomed instead. Jeremy Little, Ricky’s long-distance Internet crush from San Francisco who never met him searches for atonement for not hearing his friend’s cries for help.

Shock and grief have given way to soul searching, as those who were closest to Ricky are forced “to confront their broken dreams, buried desires, and missed opportunities.” As they search for meaning and redemption, they find a common purpose of learning to trust their feelings and fight for real intimacy in a selfish and insincere world. We are taken into the relationships between mother and child, brother and sister, mentor and protégé, and bully and victim. Everyone is broken and painfully human. We have not yet had many novels that look at the real lives behind social media users and we quickly see the differences between what we show the world and how we see ourselves. We see the Internet as a transformative experience for rural youth. Each decision the characters of the book make goes through the web and back to them as consequences they could not expect. Ricky Graves, the character, shows us that social media has created a new place “for friendship and heartbreak, hope and torment.”

Here are the messy complications of technology in our lives and a story of finding forgiveness and a heartbreaking look at today’s current social moment. Six intertwining narratives take us into love, loss, and tragedy and remind us that sexual identity is a struggle for many who live in small-towns.

Here is the nature of adolescence, identity, and the complex politics of small town communities. As we start to read, we assume that this is the story of a bullied, conflicted kid who is so overwhelmed by his life that shoots others and then himself. Multiple narrators make us wonder how the story will ultimately come together and in fact, they do not. We are left with questions about multiple characters and how they connect and how their choices worked for them. We see something about modern technology and detachment from life and the many ways of coping with the results from the shooting.

We read about the dangers of social media as the plot slowly comes to light and even though everything revolves around a shooting, it is only briefly described as the psychological aspects of it are what impact us the most. Each chapter gives another layer to the story and many of the characters are not likable yet there is redemption.

 

 

“Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound” by Judith Katz— The Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Special Edition

Katz, Judith. “Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound”, Bywater Books, 2017.

The 25th Anniversary Special Edition

Amos Lassen

Judith Katz takes a look at a Jewish family with three daughters. Nadine’s (née Morningstar) leaves the family home and moves escapes from her incendiary Jewish family into the lesbian town of New Chelm. She sees this not so much as a move but rather as an escape. Originally published in 1992, the book won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction.

Most of the plot is about two of the sisters. Nadine is a troubled violin player, who has been estranged from her family since the Friday evening she set her hair on fire; and Jane, who is thought to be the good daughter”. Jane, however, does not see herself as such and issues are raised as she gets ready to be the maid of honor in the wedding of the third sister, Electa. Both Nadine Jane’s now live in New Chelm, the lesbian Jewish community. After accidentally running into each other, they face several events that take them back to the family. The girls’ mother shares that preparations for her daughter’s wedding remind her of her childhood dream of becoming a rabbi.

Succinctly said the plot goes like this: “Nadine Pagan’s dyke sister Jane wants to find her. Her lover Rose wants to marry her. And her mother Fay wants to forget her. All Nadine wants is to stop the buzzing in her head.”

The story centers on the experiences of Nadine and Jane Morningstar and the themes of alienation, familial dysfunction, coming-of-age, identity formation, drug addiction, and obsessive romance. The novel is character-driven and author Katz has indeed created unforgettable characters and we not only see but also understand and experience their struggles. While this is on the surface a book about lesbians and Jews, it is so much more than that as it examines the human condition in modern society.

The magical realism of the plot reminded me of writings by Isaac Bashevis Singer and it is fascinating to see how Katz took her world and made it contemporary. Others have mentioned that they did not care for this but I, personally, loved it.