Saturday, December 26, 2009

Queer Books of 2009

Queer Books of 2009

A large number of fantastic new queer books were published in 2009 - too many for us to cover in the blog. Best-selling queer authors like Colm Toibin (Brooklyn) and Sarah Waters (The Little Stranger) published impressive novels without any overt queer themes. Bright new talent like Vestal McIntyre (Lake Overturn) and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (So Many Ways to Sleep Badly) published novels which tread new territory previously unexplored in queer fiction. Rakesh Satyal (Blue Boy) and Abdellah Taia (Salvation Army) breathed new life into the coming of age novel with spectacular debuts. G. Winston James (Shaming the Devil) and Jameson Currier (Still Dancing) published varied and startling collections of short stories. Edmund White and David Plante published memoirs that shed new light on queer experience. With fresh and savy growing publishers like Alyson, Red Bone Press, Lethe Press and Young Offenders Media giving burgeoning queer talent a voice, there will be plenty of new queer literature to look forward to in the new year.

For a more comprehensive look at what queer writers have been reading over the past year, the informative and well-maintained blog Band of Thebes has gathered an impressive array of 56 queer writers to give their 2009 recommendations. Click here to read the list.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Review: Wilde Stories 2009: The Year's Best Gay Speculative Fiction

Wilde Stories 2009: The Year's Best Gay Speculative Fiction
Edited by Steve Berman

Published by Lethe Press

Reviewed by Paul Kane

These eleven stories display a match made in heaven and, on occasion, consummated in hell: speculative / slipstream literature conflated with a queer/LGBT sensibility. Joel Lane’s Behind the Curtain, a skewered take on the vampire tale, is a case in point. Set amid a landscape of urban decay and environmental collapse, it has a protagonist intent on cruising for a bruising; or a bloodletting, anyway. Vampire romance, as a genre, is all the rage with adolescent girls at the minute; this story is a more carnal version of the form.

The most impressive piece of fiction is AKA St. Mark’s Place by Richard Bowes, though the ending is a bit perfunctory, mind. In essence, the story traces the relationship between three troubled souls - Judy, Ray and BD - from the mid-'60s to the early 1970s. Their relationship, a tangle of fate, is not so much a love triangle as a triangle of intimate complicity; and the most effective passages evoke the frisson of feeling that occurs when you notice properly who people are, how they see themselves. The clairvoyant element here adds a layer of mystery, but does not dispel the gloom of two take-home truths: families are ramshackle dwellings, unstable and insecure, is one; another: the abused will somehow tend to become abusers.

Another highlight of the collection is a tale entitled Bluff, by that formidably accomplished writer, L.A. Fields. His contribution touches on lust, longing, a little death (in the Elizabethan sense, natch) and maybe the larger one. Though a small example of what he can do, it is effective nonetheless.

Finally, to end, comments on a couple of other contributions. I’m Your Violence by Lee Thomas starts out as a police procedural in the vein of James Ellroy: a grisly sex murder, the leading turn an act of near-cannibalism. It then veers off in a weird (or an even weirder) direction but a fruitful one, with an interesting moral ambivalence at its core. As a writer, Thomas is a real find and his protagonist here, a detective by the name of Dean Kaiser, is surely too intriguing a character to be limited to a run-out in just one story. Echo by Peter Dube is different again, having a thread of subtle disquiet which evokes that dark genius Thomas Ligotti, or some of the rare fictions of Guy Davenport. It seemed to tell of a curious fate, yet was as much a meditation on memory and lost time. A strange, suggestive story.

Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. Hewelcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Review: Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read

Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read
Edited by Richard Canning

Published by Alyson Books

Reviewed by Max Fincher

‘Must read’ or ‘must do’ lists rouse my hackles, initially at least. My immediate feeling is: ‘Why must I?’ Why should I read this or that book in preference to another? Or one I have chosen to read or had recommended to me? It is similar to the mixed feelings you might experience being told to read certain ‘classic’ works of fiction at college or university, because they are somehow inherently ‘good for you’. We all know what is good for us (sometimes we even enjoy it) but we don’t always necessarily want to be good all the time. However, this collection of essays in no way attempts to persuade you why you must read these books along the arguments of their literariness, popularity or for self-improvement reasons; in fact, one or two of the essays argue against reading their choice. Instead, the reader is given very personal reflections by the contributors on the pleasures they have yet to discover. After putting off reading Moby Dick for years, I might now try reading the novel, as well as revisiting again, with a better understanding, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.

So Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read ‘...isn’t a canonical book’. As Richard Canning makes clear in his introduction, there is no overarching grand narrative that links the selections together according to some linear, developmental history. The range of books covered is not merely limited to novels either. Letters, diaries, poetry, and autobiography are included, and the essays span Plato, Gilgamesh and the Bible to contemporary fiction by Herve Guibert, Rebecca Brown and Matthew Sadler. This is not intended to be a comprehensive survey or history of gay literature in the manner of say Gregory Woods’s A History of Gay Literature, but is a highly subjective and personal choice of works by both new and established contemporary writers. There are gaps and holes between writers and periods and ‘the babble of gathered voices’, gaps that we can fill in if we choose. Inevitably, everyone will have their own ‘must read’ list. But as Canning says to focus on who is left out is to miss the point: ‘the value of this book not by what isn’t here, but by what is’ (p.xiv).

And for some readers there may be surprising omissions. Forster, Gide, Genet, Joe Orton, Armistead Maupin, Alan Hollingshurst and Sarah Waters are all absent. One aspect of this collection that makes it immensely readable and enjoyable, is that the essays are not consistently in the vein of classic biographical or literary-critical appreciations. Instead, many contributors offer subjective viewpoints, reminiscences and musings on the process of reading, the writers or describe how certain characters changed or affected them personally. Many essays read against established interpretations. For instance Robert Glück’s reads Edmund White’s, A Boy’s Own Story as a transgressive piece of fiction that argues against reading the novel as an example of ‘crossover’ literature with mainstream audiences. Regina Marler admits she doesn’t like Henry James’s The Bostonians, finding James’s characterisation of the latent lesbian attraction between the characters of Olive and Verena ‘mean-spirited’, ‘spiteful’ and ‘grotesque’.

Frequently, the essays are stylistically inventive, as in Kathy Acker’s appreciation of the fiction of William Burroughs. In addition, there are exciting cross-currents occurring between readers and writers, where sexuality is not a centrifugal point: straight and lesbian women read gay men’s writing, and (previously straight) and gay/bisexual men read straight women’s fiction. The essay by Mark Behr on The Color Purple is a shining example, and shows the power of fiction to both transform and connect people.

Herman Melville

Out of the fifty books chosen, I have read six: Horace Walpole’s Letters (only selections; reading all thirty-four volumes would take forever); Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy; Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. For my Christmas holiday reading, I decided I would choose five books to read. Vestal McIntyre’s description of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as ‘...a story bursting at its seams, assembled and sewn together as roughly as Frankenstein’s monster’ and Melville’s daring, experimental language intrigues me. I have shied away from modernist fiction, but perhaps Melville will engage me. Second on my list is Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. Edmund White describes how Yourcenar’s had an unconventional upbringing, tutored by her father in Latin and Greek, and how she is ‘a philosophical writer with a deep and wide culture’. I am hoping to discover a brilliant historical fiction writer, to see how she portrays ‘one of the great same-sex love stories of all time’. Thirdly, I would like to read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. David Bergman has whetted my interest by describing Ginsberg’s curious mix of spirituality and explicit sexuality, his inclusive and embracing attitude to other people, and how the experience of reading his poems is like ‘holding the book and holding the man’. J.R. Ackerley’s autobiography, My Father and Myself, is, according to Andrew Holleran, ‘a wonderful comic portrait of people with an almost Dickensian cast’. I am anticipating from Holleran’s description something in the realm of Alan Bennett’s wonderfully observant character-sketches, Talking Heads, mixed with Kenneth Williams’ diary. Holleran’s description of Ackerley as ‘entertaining’, ‘acerbic’ and ‘never boring or monotonous’, suggests a pleasurable journey of exploration of a complex man’s relationship with his father and his own sexual feelings. Finally, I would like to read Andrew Holleran’s own novel, Dancer from the Dance, to submerge and lose myself in a heady era of ‘intense artifice’, the disco moment of the 1970s, and to discover perhaps the ‘first real novel of Gay Liberation’, which as Matias Viegener says is ‘a wild and unexpected fulfilment of Walt Whitman’s utopian call for the “love of comrades” to “sing the body electric”.

Reading the essays in this collection has opened my eyes to the diversity of voices and his(her)stories that are out there for us all to explore and experience. You may find your assumptions and expectations about a particular work or writer confirmed or overturned, but hopefully you will make new discoveries. I am hoping my own selections will be entertaining, challenging and informative, and that each will contain something that, in some small or large way, changes my own ‘certainties’. To this end, I would like to conclude with a quotation from Mark Behr’s essay on The Color Purple, as a coda for why everyone must read:

The Reader doubts, often. From book to book, his doubts multiply. The Reader believes that if more people were less certain more often, and tasted the emancipation that comes with doubt, there would be fewer wars and fewer hungry and unhappy and angry people in whose eyes he sees himself reflected.

Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Review: Ganymede Stories One

Ganymede Stories One
edited by John Stahle

Published by Ganymede

Reviewed by Marc Bridle

This anthology brings together short stories published in the first six issues of Ganymede; and like all anthologies it is a hit-and-miss affair. But what sets it above many similar collections is both the quality of the writing and the audacity of its editors in establishing a new gay literary benchmark for anthologies of this kind. The (mostly) contemporary prose in these 200 pages is seen squarely in the context of a Nineteenth Century aesthetic, one that stretches from the horse-drawn hansoms of gas-lit London to the bloodshot-eyed edginess of modern day San Francisco and Paris.

From Andrew J. Peters’ adorably amusing gay fairytale, The Vain Prince, to Cyrus Cassells’ aphoristic Another Horse on Your Horse Ranch established principles of prose are overturned. Peters’ fairytale anti-hero, Adalbert, is rather like a queer Turandot, and his prose swaggers along like a drunken queen in a nightclub, the very antithesis of what a fairytale should be. The opposite are Cassells’ exquisitely drawn short paragraphs, dexterously poetic and dripping in color like a golden-tongued seraphim. Elsewhere you can clearly see an individual writer’s non-literary influences. B.R.Lyon’s As is, I aspires to the condition of music, as does Marc Andreottola’s Lots. What sets Andreottola’s story apart from others here is the filmic quality he brings to his narrative. Just as a filmmaker can focus on one image and make the viewer seem unsettled so does Andreottola: “All the entertainer could see was the thigh of the Stump, a strong meaty thigh. The thigh activated the entertainer somehow, like a switch. He felt like the thighs could crush him like a nutcracker.” On a completely different level, John Stahl’s brilliantly articulated Memories of Inexpression shows that evocative writing doesn’t need to be a dialogue. With Beckett-like precision Stahl’s prose bears the imprint of isolation and memory like few other pieces in this anthology.

Gay writing is universal and it is, therefore, good to see the Ljubljana-based writer Boris Pintar included in this anthology. Slavic Thicket: Two Stories, translated from the Slovene by Rawley Grau, is coruscating. Whether by design or by translation his writing positively reeks of scents; pissing is not so much about the act as it is about the smell. In fact, this is prose that assails the senses in every way: cocks are eye-balled, sniffed and licked; nostrils are there not just to smell the aphrodisiac of sex but to snort coke, poppers and glue. Paragraphs are long – but never over long – but their very tightness leaves one feeling rather as if one has been clubbed over the head. They are brutal. The only other story which comes close to this kind of semi-pornographic wasteland of spunk and hard fucks is Eric Karl Anderson’s Beauty Number Two.

There used to be a time when gay literature had one ubiquitous theme: HIV and AIDS (think especially of the works of Hervé Guibert or David Wojnarowicz) so it was astonishing to find that the acronym HIV appears twice and AIDS just once in this entire anthology, and even then in just one story: Beauty Number Two. Anderson is certainly neither quixotic nor passive about it (“I’ve had enough of this fucking AIDS death camp”) but neither is he remote from it (“He is HIV positive: each revelatory fact makes him more perfect in my fevered imagination”). And jostling with the poetry of Anderson’s prose is a veritable shopping list of modern-day triviality, from celebrity blow-jobs to branded underwear, all neatly bound together in a very Noughties framework of queer happiness.

Cyrus Cassells

Which is, I suppose, what Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson might have been doing in the Nineteenth century. The inclusion of works by Wilde and Stevenson, taking up a full quarter of the pages here, strikes me as problematical, though it does underline the extent to which some recent gay writing has retrenched to a more inverted form of beauty. Neither author could be said to be a model for Dennis Cooper’s anti-queer deviancy, but I can see the partial influence of their aesthetic on some of the writers appearing earlier on in this collection. Stevenson’s The Adventure of the Hansom Cab is indeed evocative, but its links to anything gay are tenuous. It reminds me more of the subtle homoeroticism of a Mapplethorpe still life. Wilde’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime is more semi-comic than semi-erotic; it’s inclusion based on the assumption that it is a rarity amongst Oscar Wilde’s prose works is, I think, unfounded.

Nevertheless, their prominence in this collection doesn’t detract from the sheer overall quality of the writing elsewhere, which is uniformly of a high standard. The sharp-edged writing of these authors might have benefited from equally sharp writing to stand beside them – perhaps some Samuel R Delaney (unfamiliar to many, even in North America) or a translation of some of Pierre Guyotat’s Prostitution, for example. Production values are high, and similar in style to Ganymede’s quarterly journal. Lavish black and white photographs are interspersed throughout, including some of the authors - who tend for the most part to be an attractive bunch. A perfect stocking filler – or as Marc Andreottola might have put it in his story a “dirty black sock” filler.

Marc Bridle is a critic and writer. He is based in Vancouver and London.

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