Category Archives: GLBT non-fiction

“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.

“Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology” by Jonathan Alexander— Confronting Creepiness

Alexander, Jonathan. “Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology”, Punctum, 2017.

Confronting Creepiness

Amos Lassen

Jonathan Alexander brings us a study that is something of a memoir, a theory, and a manifesto. He bases this on his experience as a victim of homophobia and suggests that labeling someone creepy may be the creepiest move of all. He confronts the idea of creepiness theoretically and with wit. He maintains that we are surrounded by creeps. Being creepy has taken on new forms and what defines a creep is so broad that nearly anyone can be a creep at times. For many, the idea of the creep is not just threatening, but exciting (in the possibility of threat). We do get “creeped” out but we are also fascinated by creeps, probably because we all sense the potential inside ourselves for creepy behavior.

Alexander brings together personal narrative and cultural analyses to explore what it means to be a creep. He uses his own experiences growing up gay in the deep south, while also looking at examples from literature and popular film and media with the idea of finding some sympathy for the creep. He confesses his own creepiness while also explaining to us what being creepy can show us in turn about our culture. He uses famous “creeps” from the past, to explore what makes a creep creepy, and how even the best of us succumb at times to being creeps. What we really get here is a study of creepiness that gives us critical insight into the fundamental perversity of how we live. Yes, this is a creepy read but we are living in creepy times.

“William Hutt: Soldier, Actor” by Keith Garebian— A Classical Actor

Garebian. Keith. “William Hutt: Soldier, Actor”, Essential Prose Series, 2017.

A Classical Actor

Amos Lassen

I must honestly say that before I picked this book up I had never heard of William Hutt. I learned something new here and that is one of the beauties of reading. Of course, reading this made me want to learn more but that does not seem to be a lot about Hutt around.

William Hutt showed that it was possible to be a great classical actor without sacrificing his Canadian accent or cultural identity. His roles created “imperishable portraits of Tartuffe, King Lear, Lear’s Fool, Feste, Khlestakov, Duke Vincentio, Titus Andronicus, Timon, Argan, Lady Bracknell, James Tyrone, Sr., and Prospero” and these guaranteed that he will be remembered as long as there is cultural memory. I understand that when he was not on stage, he could be charming and witty or moody and “oppressively grand.” He remained

the Duke of “Dark Corners” to many who wished to know him more intimately. In this detailed biography, Keith Garebian gives us Hutt’s “private and public lives, his most intense conflicts, deepest yearnings and anxieties in order to show how Hutt brought his life to his work and work to his life in a manner that left him vulnerable to wounds of the heart yet open to radical re-invention as an actor.”

“I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well” by James Allen Hall— Queer in Florida in the 80s

Hall, James Allen. “I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well”, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2017.

Queer in Florida in the 80s

Amos Lassen

When James Allen Hall’s parents lost their once-thriving family business in the pre-crash 2000s, they moved into a two-bedroom student apartment that James had previously shared previously with just his brother. His mother routinely attempts or threatens suicide, his father is depressed. Hall lives alongside, and through his family’s meth addiction, mental illnesses, and incarcerations, and weighs “his own penchants for less than happy, equal sex with an agility, depth, and lightness that is blissfully inconclusive.”

This is a collection of harrowing essays that are not only powerful but that also reveal the author’s sensitivity to find beauty and value in places where most of us do not look. He shows his vulnerability in language that is rarely spoken and we see him as a

witness, a seeker, a survivor and someone who’s earned the right to judge but who withholds doing so because he believes that we are all together and help by restraints that we see as compassion.

Hall journeyed through a youth that was violent and homophobic yet he managed to both exist and persist., manages to exist and persist. His writing expresses the pains that we endured and he persevered because he dared to accept himself as flawed. His writing is honest and compelling and for those of us who have ever had a broken heart will understand what he has to say. When all of his essays are taken together we see that we have his memoir written in the language of poetry. At times he disturbs us with what he writes but there is also humor here and he ranges from being serious to using camp to express how he feels. He discusses suicide frankly and openly and we love that he is honest about that. He knows the difficulties of being responsible and he knows that guilt can set boundaries. Through all of this we watch him take form as a gay male. He rises above the pain of his family and takes his own emotional risks. The risk he did not have to take is this absolutely gorgeous book.

“The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name” by Philip Harris— The Intersectionality of the Poet

Harris, Philip. “The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name”, Nomadic Press, 2017.

The Intersectionality of the Poet

Amos Lassen

“The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name” is basically a chapbook collection of nonfiction prose poetry that explores the intersectionality of narrator Philip Harris. Harris is a gay, Mexican man from Southern California who finds himself at the center of cultures, sexuality, and generations. He explores his mother’s life as a Chicana dealing with racism, his grandmother’s grief, and his own queer existence as a person of color with passing white privilege and in doing so, he shares his multicultural narrative.

As he searches for his roots and he struggles with what it means to feel love for his Mexican mother and her struggles while at the same time trying to understand his own gay identity that he so easily recognizes. What he finds is what he needs. Harris draws us into personal moments and interweaves familial stories in his structured prose poetry and we feel what he feels.

There’s comedy, pain, and honesty. There are no wasted words in Harris’s tribute to his mother and grandmother and he delivers a memoir that hits hard and explains a lot about what it’s like to grow up in America. This is an intimate look at family and poet that celebrates “the personal and political lives that reside in our everyday lives.”

“Everything Is Awful: And Other Observations” by Matt Bellassai— Awful Moments of Life

Bellassai, Matt. “Everything Is Awful: And Other Observations”, Atria/Keywords, 2017.

Awful Moments of Life

Amos Lassen

“Everything is Awful” is a collection of very funny and anguished essays about awful moments from Matt Bellassai’s life so far, the humiliations of being an adult, and other little indignities.

Matt Bellassai tells us that he became “semi-Internet famous” by getting drunk at work, making him a “professional” alcoholic. He’s been able to understand some things about his life but certainly not everything. This is not a memoir yet but in a few years it night become one but that is doubtful. It is, quite simply, essays about some awful moments in Matt’s life that made him the adult that he is today. There is anguish here.

Matt has had to deal with his past when he was known as the Midwest’s biggest nerd. We read how he came out as gay to his friends and family, how he deals the humiliations of adulthood, “like giving up on love in New York City, living alone with no one to heat his microwave dinners, and combating the inner voice that tells him to say aloud all the things the rest of us are smart enough to keep to ourselves.”

Bellassai has a unique and signature voice and perspective and he is very funny. I caught myself laughing aloud as I read but he is also sincere in what he has to say. He is able to move from the very serious to the silly instantly and he truly lives up to his own mantra that “being a human is hard work, so you may as well make your story funny when you can.”

“Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays” by Fenton Johnson— Essays on Life

Johnson, Fenton. “Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays”, Sarabande, 2017.

Essays on Life

Amos Lassen

Fenton Johnson’s “Everywhere Home” is part retrospective and part memoir. He explores sexuality, religion, geography, the AIDS crisis, and more. We go with him from the hills of Kentucky to those of San Francisco, from the streets of Paris to the sidewalks of Calcutta. As he travels, he investigates questions large and small such as the relationship between artists and museums, a New Guinean display of shrunken heads and the difference between empiricism and intuition.

This collection draws together essays that originally appeared in “Harper’s”, “The New York Times”, “All Things Considered” and elsewhere and new work. He writes from the front lines of the AIDS epidemic, from Burning Man, from monasteries both near and far and his subjects range from Oscar Wilde to censorship in journalism to Kentucky basketball. What is really amazing is the unity between the essays and how Johnson can explain the world around him in such beautiful language. We sense the storyteller in him especially when writing about the desire to belong. We also become very aware of the different kinds of human pain and the hope that comes out of them.

Johnson has far-ranging and engaging interests that are both personal and academic interests and he is glad to be alive and he celebrates that. If you have ever read any of his other works you know exactly what I am speaking about. Johnson writes in a simple and straightforward style and there is beauty in that. Because his perspective differs from others, he brings something new to every topic he writes about.

Some of his essays are clearly autobiographical, in some he writes using literary criticism and in some he is a cultural commentator. In all of then he is Fenton Johnson with his personal presence and in that he lets us feel that he is writing directly to us. He is able to demonstrate that “his gay sensibility is just part of normal, ordinary human awareness that is deepened and intensified by his gay sensibility. He has something special to offer.”

The essays show a great deal about Johnson, himself as well as about today’s society and culture. Johnson is honest and vulnerable because he is human. He is always intelligent, interesting and provocative.

“Not Guilty: Queer Stories from a Century of Discrimination” by Sue Elliot and Steve Humphries— An Oral History

Elliott, Sue and Steve Humphries. “Not Guilty: Queer Stories from a Century of Discrimination”, Biteback. 2017.

An Oral History

Amos Lassen

It was just fifty years ago in the United Kingdom when sex between men was a crime. The 1967 Sexual Offences Act changed that in part, but it was only the beginning of the long fight for equality in the eyes of the law and society in general. “Not Guilty” is an oral history telling that story through the lives of gay men who lived through those years.

It is a bit hard to imagine that in Britain, a glorious handful of campaigners helped change life forever. We hear the voices of gay men who lived through the years when equality was unimaginable. Reading this is listening to the voices that were strong and had hope and who were there during the struggle for legitimacy That struggle continues to this day. The men whose stories we follow come from very different backgrounds, and different times, ye they provide us with the strongest possible testament to the need for awareness and action.