Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review: Brother Dumb by Sky Gilbert

Sky Gilbert
Brother Dumb

Published by ECW Press

Reviewed by Michael Allen Potter

Can you trust the voice of an author who never actually wrote anything as he ruminates on the peaks and valleys of his own literary career? And what can be made of a man looking back on a life (not lived, mind you) in an autobiography? Brother Dumb asks these questions, and many more, in the course of its 207 pages as it intentionally challenges and actively engages the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, author and character, memoir and extended monologue.

“Just a quick style note. (You might not think that I’m paying attention to style, but I am.) I know it seems weird – and it will become even weirder – that I don’t refer to anyone by their actual names, including myself. (I go on about “my daughter” or “critics” anonymously, but when it comes to the women in my life, I’ve changed their names – to protect the innocent.) Also, I’m not going to quote from my books. In a way this doesn’t make sense, I know. It’s not as if you can’t figure out who I am. But all this is related to the way my brain works. I need the illusion of privacy. Which brings me to why I would even write this. It’s the kind of book I should never have written, that I promised never to write. But certain incidents – horrible, nightmarish incidents – have force my hand. And also, if I were to use real names, it wouldn’t seem like fiction. Sure, it’s all true, but it’s important for me not to think it’s true. The best type of writing is when the author is trying to fool himself that what his writing is a lie.” (p. 29)

Gilbert holds the University Research Chair in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at The University of Guelph and has been a driving force on the Toronto queer theatre scene as an actor, playwright, and director for decades. This dramatic background is quite evident in the pages of Brother Dumb as Gilbert’s unnamed narrator makes so few forays into actual dialogue in the course of a reminiscence about a life lived most vibrantly in the years on either side of World War II that the narrative quickly coalesces into an almost singular rant against the whole of humanity itself (with the occasional direct address thrown into the mix to vary the POV, ever so slightly). Highlights on this misanthropic hit list include (but are by no means limited to): other writers (“the arts attracts the worst class of people. By that I mean the lazy liars, the unabashed hypocrites, the gossiping guttersnipes” (p. 25)), jazz (“I really do think that the whole thing is bogus” (p. 4)), and parties (“God, I hate parties”(p. 34)). This Salingeresque character, however, reserves his most potent bile and invective for the “crapulent dolt[s]” (p. 18) who engage in the literary criticism that forced him into the exile that is laid out, at length, in the pages of this book. “Since I couldn’t detach myself from reviewers – the stupid, fatuous crap they spew to feed their own egos – there was nothing to do but abandon the act of putting my work before them.” (p. 118)

The vehemence of this last sentence begs the obvious question: “Why would you (meaning me) even consider reviewing Brother Dumb?” Because this type of difficult-to-categorize literary pranksterism thrills me in a way that straight fiction and conventional autobiography often do not and because this hybrid genre, alternately discussed as fictoir, memtion, autolieography, and (this is my favorite) Freyction, reminds us that creative writing is still an art form that is meant to be appreciated for all of its thought provoking, controversial, antagonistic, unreliable, and deliciously vague potential.

And because “I distrust the whole idea of authenticity, actually – I think it’s very inauthentic.” (p. 134)

Michael Allen Potter holds degrees in English and Theatre Arts and is currently a graduate student in The Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa where he is completing a book about identity theft in New York State. Michael can be contacted via his new blog: I, Cartographer.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Review: An Amorous Woman by Donna George Storey

Donna George Storey
An Amorous Woman

Published by Orion

Reviewed by Kay Sexton

In An Amorous Woman, Donna George Storey has written a book in which escapism (to Japan in this case) and hot and gritty realism (in the sexual sense) run hand in hand through the pages. Her descriptions of Japan make it seem a fairytale setting, but what happens to Lydia in those settings in anything but fairytale - it's sexual encounters that intrigue, arouse and frighten this young Westerner in almost equal proportions and as we pursue her geographical and erotic journey with her, we're introduced to Japan and the Japanese obsessions, desires and perversions in such a smooth fashion that there's no doubt Storey really knows her stuff.

The book is packed with erotic content, but there is also an emotional component, Lydia is not just a good time girl, she's looking for a future and that stops this book being just another bonk-fest. We care what happens and invest in Lydia's journey, even as we enjoy her experiences and egg her on to fulfill each and every passion of an 'amorous woman'. The bisexual content here is not the major component of the story, but it’s an important component, skillfully handled, which helps the reader see where Lydia’s journey begins, even if we aren’t sure where it will end.

Kay Sexton is a fiction writer, editor and freelance journalist: she blogs about writing fiction here and has a regular column here.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Review: Pure Reason by Nikos Stangos

Nikos Stangos
Pure Reason

Published by Thames & Hudson

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

It seems important to note at the start what a handsome object Pure Reason is before discussing the intellectual depth of the poems within it. The book is filled with photographs of astonishing drawings, paintings and sculptures by many notable artists including David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin and Jasper Johns to name a few. These artworks are often paired with poems that comment upon the emotion or mood evoked by the writing. The art also has a direct connection with the late author himself. Nikos Stangos was a commissioning editor for Thames & Hudson, encouraging the work and overseeing the publication of books on the visual arts by many of the artists whose work is included. Some of the artwork within the book was created in honor of Stangos himself. It has been lovingly edited and includes an introduction and afterward by the prominent author David Plante. Published posthumously, Pure Reason is a highly touching personal tribute, but, more importantly, it also contains poems that rigorously explore the human condition in an illuminating and deeply philosophical way.

What’s so compelling about Stangos’ poetry is that, although it is deeply concerned with ideas, it remains wholly human. The voice which breaks through wants to understand itself and its relationship to others. Many of the poems seem to investigate the intermediary of language itself, the way that words carry meaning and can conceal truth. Throughout the book, Stangos describes a striving towards the roots of ideas, strategies for arriving at their central meaning. The author’s outlook is decidedly optimistic in its consideration of a world containing a multiplicity of valid viewpoints: “I want the meaning to be one. Meaning is one when distances define.” Yet Stangos also postulates that the truth we seek may also be purposefully concealed through our own actions, our own “beliefs” which are “only the rational excuses for feelings.” Nevertheless, he conveys that it’s necessary to strive towards a place devoid of ambiguities, a place of “purity” and “one truth.”

At heart, this book is a tremendously beautiful tribute to a man who devoted himself to art and new forms of expressing the spiritual depths of life. But the poetry touches upon themes that are so powerfully universal they can’t be limited to any one individual.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Blithe House Quarterly and the anthology From Boys to Men.


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Review: Like Son by Felicia Luna Lemas

Felicia Luna Lemas
Like Son

Published by Akashic Books

Reviewed by Kay Sexton

This second novel from Felicia Luna Lemas, takes an oblique, mysterious trajectory through the effects of obsessive love on three generations of one family. Frank’s father fell in love with a woman who wasn’t his wife, and Frank, born Francisca, is the war zone over which they fight for many years. Francisca is kept by her mother, a woman of pathological behaviour and quite vile habits. When Frank escapes, by becoming a boy, his almost blind father doesn’t realise his daughter has become a son and on his deathbed reveals that his own mother, Frank’s grandmother, was the lover of Nahui Olin, the artist-poet, liberated woman (or nymphomaniac, according to one writer) and contemporary of Frida Kahlo.

Dad’s last gift to Frank is a picture of Nahui, and when he flees to New York and meets Nathalie, it is her resemblance to Nahui that first attracts him. But Nathalie is unstable in the extreme, and leaves Frank again and again, forcing him to experience the love, the loss and the anger of his forbears.

The beauties of this novel tend to be self-contained ones, apart from the account of Frank and Nathalie building a Day of the Dead altar after 9/11, which is a prose poem, dense with meaning and references that spread through the longer narrative. Most of the other really superlative sections of the book are locked into themselves: Frank taking his father’s clothes, his finding a shop and buying the kitsch that fills it, his experience with a weather radio, all fail to weave fully into the larger story and nothing, at the end of the book, is resolved. But the language (apart from a tendency to use dangling modifiers which gets old very fast) is beautiful and redeems the more ragged aspects of the tale.

As well as writing for the UK's premier sustainability journal, Green Futures, Pushcart-nominated Kay Sexton has recently completed ‘Green Thought in an Urban Shade’, a words and pictures exhibition with painter Fion Gunn that was shown in London, Dublin and Beijing. She has had more than ninety short stories published. Kay blogs about writing fiction at and has a regular column at