Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Film Review: Kakera – A Piece of Our Life

Directed by Momoko Andô

Opens April 2 at the ICA in London

Kakera tells the story of a relationship between two young women in Tokyo. Well, not exactly a relationship: a kind of complex diagram of tangents, angles, obliques, axes, intersections and vanishing points. It’s like Hal Hartley didn’t lose contact with the real world after Amateur, but moved to Japan to pursue his relationship geometries: Kakera is strongly reminiscent of Trust or The Unbelievable Truth in its washed-out palette and tone, at once deadpan and quirky, often gently nostalgic for things even as they are occurring. Some of the Tokyo street scenes, accompanied by ringing guitar chords, are clearly a reference to Lost in Translation, but the protagonists – Haru and Riko – are both Japanese (and there are some Yasujiro Ozu references to recall the Japanese tradition of quietly observational love stories).

But like the protagonists of Sofia Coppola’s film, and of Hartley’s films, they are fish out of water, moving to their own rhythm that’s just a little different from the rest of the world. It has the quiet, everyday texture and delicacy of new manga as pioneered by Frédéric Boilet, which focus on love, sex and real people rather than superheroes and wide-eyed cuties. Not that Haru and Riko aren’t, in their own way, wide-eyed cuties. Haru is a dreamy-eyed literature student drifting along in a relationship with her toy gun-carving boyfriend, while he dithers over dumping his former girlfriend. After an unsatisfying morning with him (he has holes in his socks! clearly no good will come of this) she stops in a café for a hot chocolate, and a stranger comes over and wipes away her milk moustache.

Talk about meeting cute: Riko says she doesn’t usually do this, and hands Haru a beer mat with her number and an adorable sketch. Attracted to Riko’s attraction, Haru calls her – the first in a series of ringing phones that will be ignored by their owners and initially answered by other people, just one of the tangents by which communication proceeds. Riko takes the afternoon off and they wander around the zoo then head back to meet her parents. Haru wonders nervously about where their friendship is heading, and Riko tells her that she thinks gender is as arbitrary as whether the zoo was open or not.
It’s a film that likes to make much of its metaphors: Riko works as a prosthetics modeller, while Haru suffered from paralysis from the waist down as a young teenager. Her boyfriend has forceful sex with her limp, numb body while a WWII movie plays in the background. Sometimes this literalisation can be dazzlingly beautiful: as when Haru fantasises diving into a starlit pool as she dissociates from the rape. Other times, as when Riko, frustrated by Haru’s uncertainty, starts a relationship with a striking dom for whom she’s modelled a prosthesis, it seems a little too forcibly and neatly quirky. Riko also swims dangerously close to the clichéd crazy lesbian: possessive, irrational, manipulative yet self-sacrificing, wearing a hideous pink furry cardigan.

But the film pulls back at the end, through a series of missed calls, to something more opaque and melancholically hopeful than the expected psycho denouement. And then there’s a prolonged scream over the final credits, followed by more of those plangent guitar chords. If you’ve missed Hal Hartley, or longed for a lesbian Lost in Translation, or wished that yuri manga was a little more true to life, or you’re just in the mood for girl-meets-girl with prosthetic boob jokes, then Kakera is a dreamy-eyed way to spend 90 minutes.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review: Everyday Angels by Maria Jastrzębska

Everyday Angels
Maria Jastrzębska

Published by Waterloo Press

Reviewed by Colin Herd

As an epigraph to her new collection ‘Everyday Angels’, Maria Jastrzębska writes that,

‘In each film of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s sequence Dekalog, actor Artur Barciś appears briefly as an incidental character who gazes but never speaks and is said to represent a knowing witness or an angel.’

By doing so, she invites the reader to under-study the Artur Barciś role, gazing at and witnessing the emotional, personal, ‘everyday’, situations her poems evoke. These situations are often memories from childhood or young adulthood told in the first person. Such as, being called a ‘bloody foreigner’ at the side of her Mother in a supermarket by a woman jumping the queue. Other customers fail to spring to their defence. Narrated through a child’s perspective, the poem begins like so:

‘The big shop-
I helped carry the bags
which left my hands stinging,
red stripes across the palms.’

It ends on a note of determination and a sense of injustice that stings much more sorely:

‘Bladdifor aynerr.
The grown ups would pass this word
Between them like a novelty,
scoffing- something to get used to

like soggy sausages or smog.
I refused to go there again,
so my mother went on her own,
each week carrying all the bags home.’

You get a sense here of the understated but no less exquisite complexity of Jastrzębska’s phrasing. I particularly like the subtly potent, territorial half-rhyme of “home” and “own” and the stinging red stripe on the palms, so suggestive of the Polish flag.

At the heart of ‘Everyday Angels’ is a sequence of prose poems called ‘Dementia Diaries’. In it, Jastrzębska writes a section in the voice of each of the main players in the drama of her parents’s dementia. It’s the emotional highpoint of the text, in which complex family tension and awkwardness are laid bare, alongside the faltering perspectives of her parents. Jastrzębska shows great skill in communicating not only frustration and sadness, but also joy and love. The voice of Mrs Alicja plucks that string most pronouncedly:

“Thick as thieves those two. I call them my two love-birds . Fall asleep holding hands. In the night she rolls over onto his side of the bed, wraps her skinny little body around him and that big man squeezes right onto the edge of the bed to make room for her.”

Again, Jastrzębska‘s phrasing is delightful, the way her sentence, too, rolls over, wraps its skinny body and then, squeezes word-heavy to the edge of the bed.

Then there are the poems of sexual-awakening, such as the humorously titled but vaguely disturbing ‘Autobiografia di uno piccolo pezze di merda’ and ‘Veil of Tweed’, in which the poet remembers her eighteen-year-old self through its relationships (and its movies):

‘I fled from you into the arms of a biche
with long lashes, sulky lips. At least
her hair was long, even though it all ended
in tears. It might as well have been me

slumped, sobbing face pressed
against a bathroom door, behind which
Anouk Aimée made love with a real man.’

Jastrzębska shows a wonderful ability to combine warm, plain-spoken and tender vocal presence with a bracing and sometimes startling freshness of expression. Reading ‘Everyday Angels’ feels like washing your face. You’re comforted, reassured and drawn in by her warm tones. The sensation, as Jastrzębska puts it memorably in one poem, is as,

‘warm water slipping on the skin.
Delicious task.’.

And then, from somewhere, she delivers an exfoliating blow in which you wake up to the almost unbearable sadness or humour or cruelty of a situation as it is revealed with spare, unflinching honesty and most of all rapier insight. You emerge feeling different, feeling good, feeling like you’ve scrubbed at some of the pimples on the face of what is to be.

In other words, this is another storming success for Waterloo Press, whose books are not only expertly selected but designed with such care, and flair too.

Colin Herd is a poet based in Edinburgh whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, Dogmatika, Gutter, Shampoo, Velvet Mafia and Mirage #4/Period(ical).


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS

Persistent Voices
edited by Philip Clark & David Groff

Published by Alyson

Reviewed by Richard Canning

I remember once mentioning to the novelist Edmund White a book project I had in mind called Gay Graves. Not a great title, for what on reflection wasn’t a good idea either. On my travels around Europe and beyond, I’d found myself making detours to visit the tombs of GLBTQ writers I revered. Often they’d be found in strange places (Genet’s on the edge of a cliff in Larache, Morocco), or be marked by weirdness or bombast (Winckelmann in Trieste) – or, just the reverse, scarcely prove noticeable at all (Proust in Pere Lachaise, Paris). There were stories behind these eccentricities, I thought. I’d come up with a jaunty narrative line, linking together a dozen such sites into some sort of single idea about the way marginal writers had been remembered on their graves.

White turned with uncharacteristic ferocity and told me what an awful thing I’d dreamt up. ‘After all, the way someone dies and is buried doesn’t say anything about how they lived! Especially with gay lives. It’s a pointless, senseless, misguided idea.’ Inevitably, the shadow of the unspoken epidemic bore over what he was saying. I binned the thought immediately.

The incident came back to me when reading Persistent Voices, which – first off – you should know as a wonderful resource, and a great addition to the canon of post-war (mostly male) gay verse. It’s not a book about HIV, and the editors note with satisfaction that ‘a majority of the poems included here are not about AIDS at all.’ Indeed a good number of authors featured are represented by poetry written before 1981, the year the syndrome was first written up. Selections are presented alphabetically by author surname; one of the pleasures is in moving – sometimes clearly, sometimes opaquely – between the 1970s, 80s and 90s and their sharply different contexts for gay men.

Still, it’s while noting the many pleasures here, and the intelligence of the selection and editing, that I’m stuck with a problem concerning Persistent Voices’s raison d’etre. It’s the same as White’s objection to my own fallacious enterprise. Why select poets simply according to their medical condition, unless that condition became the governing subject around which the poems are based? And – churlish as it may be - if you do use this criterion, why then bend the rules, to accommodate poets who, suffering from ill health, committed suicide?

Rachel Hadas

Some writers here effectively came to poetry because of their HIV status. Two were nurtured by poet-tutor Rachel Hadas, in a groundbreaking creative writing class for early casualties, wonderfully written up in her (ed.) Unending Dialogue: Voices from an AIDS Poetry Workshop (Faber & Faber, 1991). Glenn Philip Kramer, is represented by three poems, including ‘What happens’:

What happens
do we become dust
do we dance with friends gone
awaiting friends to come…

The talent of the other, Charles Barber, is best shown by ‘Thirteen Things about a Catheter’:

A fish,
Hung from a pole,
Striped with words of caution:
“To expire in ninety-one”
(Like me?)

Hadas recounted in Unending Dialogue how she developed her students’ ideas and reaching out towards a personal poetic style, by introducing them to apposite verse from different contexts – to Tennyson, for example, and the work of other elegists. She also shared her own poetry. In Persistent Voices, though, we lack this context: Hadas has not died. Nevertheless, she has written some of the most memorable verse about HIV/AIDS.

Other poets can be said to have written their best work on or as a result of their diagnosis and struggles with ill health – notably Tory Dent, whose single selection from the brave, idiosyncratic collection HIV, Mon Amour (1999) seems oddly frugal. The book was, after all, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the Academy of American Poets’ James Laughlin Award. Perhaps there were problems with permissions. Two selections from Dent’s Black Milk (2005) make the cut, however, including ‘Immigrant in my own life,’ with its threnody-born pulsating rhythm:

I don’t know my name, what I am without disease,
Foreign sky, foreign street, foreign trees with their foreign leaves.

Dent and Cookie Mueller are the sole female voices here, understandably: women tended to succumb to AIDS-related conditions much more quickly, having invariably been diagnosed as suffering from the syndrome much later than their male peers. Given the small window of time often afforded this group before its members got sick, it is obvious why so few left us much literature. Gay male poets dominate, among whom there are familiar names, such as Sam D’Allesandro, Paul Monette, George Whitmore and the outstanding Tim Dlugos, who has four selections from his volume Powerless, and a fifth poem cannily unearthed from the much-missed Patrick Merla-edited journal James White Review.

The James White Review also discovered a poet I wasn’t aware of – J M Regan, whose ‘Partial Luetic History of an Individual at Risk’ is perhaps the most ambitious poem here, bending the nonsensical world of AIDS biomedicine and treatment into verse characterised by wonderful, intentionally flawed rhymes:

My Jewish doctor loves me truer,
sitting rigid at the bare Care Center
like a gaunt tree,
and the air of a bored whore,
one eye on her watch,
one hand in her snatch.

Joe Brainard is also present. And here’s a cavil: some nine pages is given over to excerpts from the book I Remember. It’s a great and important gay poem – but, unlike most of the material here, it is readily available elsewhere, and, dating from 1970, inevitably makes the reader wonder: how, and why, should Brainard’s AIDS-related death come to define his poetical gifts? On the other hand, it comes as a shock to find Brainard’s 1971 poem ‘Sick Art’ jauntily pronounce:

Today, with modern art, it is not easy to spot diseases and physical disorders.
Many doctors, however, have noticed a strong relationship between various skin diseases and the paintings of Jackson Pollock.
Fungus infections are very common in the art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Then again, Steve Abbott’s ‘Elegy’ – ‘The dead/ communicate to us in strange ways, or is it only because it is so/ ordinary we think it strange’ – turns out to have been published in 1978. It’s a fine reminder that gay authors in the midst of the 70s culture of erotic abandonment were never only writing, or thinking, about sex.

James Merrill, certainly the poet with the biggest reputation today, was known to have addressed AIDS with characteristic obliqueness in his final collections. Three poems serve him well – particularly ‘Farewell Performance’, dedicated to Merrill’s friend, the critic David Kalstone:

Art. It cures affliction. As lights go down and
Maestro lifts his wand, the unfailing sea change
starts within us. Limber alembics once more
make of the common

lot a pure, brief gold.

Sadly, Clark and Groff haven’t included the second poem Merrill wrote for Kalstone, ‘Investiture at Cecconi's’ – though it can be found in Michael Klein’s anthology from 1992, Poets for Life: Seventy-six Poets Respond to AIDS.

Klein and Richard McCann followed this important collection with a second, Things Shaped in Passing, in 1997. I don’t want to compare these with Persistent Voices; there ought to be space on your bookshelves for all of them. But it is hard, once encouraged to think about the subject of HIV/AIDS, not to regret the forced exclusion in Persistent Voices of some great poets who either escaped HIV infection themselves, or have not died of AIDS: Thom Gunn, perhaps, most famously (The Man with Night Sweats collection), but also Olga Broumas, Rafael Campo, Mark Doty, Marilyn Hacker, Rachel Hadas, Richard Howard, Richard McCann, J D McClatchy, David Trinidad and Gregory Woods.

Nonetheless, Clark and Groff are to be congratulated for the breadth of their research. Most but not all of the contributors write in English; worthy exceptions include the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, best known for his prose works, and the Spanish author Jaime Gil de Biedma, whose four poems, finely translated by James Nolan, include ‘Pandemic and Celeste’:

To know love, to learn about it,
It’s necessary to have been alone.
And it’s necessary to have made love
On four hundred nights – with four hundred
different bodies. Its mysteries,
as the poet said, are of the soul
but a body is the book in which they are read.

Donald Britton

Persistent Voices comes from a U.S. publisher, but Clark and Groff fortunately offer five poems by an acclaimed young English poet of the 90s, Adam Johnson, whose laconic tone is masterly: ‘I had not reckoned that the sky would fall.’ (‘The Departure Lounge’). They’ve also, I’d venture, (re-)discovered at least one genius: Donald Britton, whose only collection in his lifetime, Italy (1981) is impossible to find, and whose three previously unpublished pieces here are just fantastic. Take ‘Hart Crane Saved from Drowning (Isle of Pines, 1926)’:

Fish-eye, coruscated scales of surf, the bird
With a note Rimbaud speaks of as “making you blush” –
coral negatives plushed gold and azure plaster
in the harbour: death could come like a blackout drunk.

Others achieve their best effects with a directness, transparency and simplicity of lexicon that indicate that the bare realities of AIDS are stark enough; hence David Matias’s ‘Fooling the Forsythia’:

Another friend died. Howard. He’ll be missed.
He and all the others who have demystified death.

Sparest of all is Melvin Dixon’s unforgettable ‘Heartbeats’, entirely comprising spondees, or stressed feet:

Test blood. Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.

Dress warm. Eat well.
Short breath. Fatigue.

Night sweats. Dry cough.
Loose stools. Weight loss.

Get mad. Fight back.
Call home. Rest well.

Sometimes – and to risk contradicting myself – knowledge of the author’s demise affects how I responded to a poem. I liked very much Jim Everhard’s ‘Sexual Liberation in a Desperate Age’, with its admission that ‘even in a dangerous time/ i’m still interested, still amused.’ But how moving are these late, paradoxical lines too:

my heart regenerates
even when my body is busy dying,
unfooled as it is by a few boyish gestures.

Of course, the subject of AIDS, whilst apparently having fallen into a historic hole in publishing, and barely ever mentioned by anyone, anywhere, proves far from distant to us, whatever our own circumstances. It touches on any number of classic poetical themes all too readily; particularly the truth that Nietzsche pointed out – that death is the only certain event in life. Or as Reginald Shepherd’s ‘You, Therefore’ has it:

You are like me, you will die too, but not today.

Persistent Voices is a rich, and richly achieved assortment, capturing three decades of inspiring (mostly) gay voices in times of opportunity and deprivation, release and constraint, fear, hope and love.

Richard Canning is Senior Lecturer and Academic Co-ordinator at Bishop Grosseteste University College, Lincoln. He is author or editor of eight books: Gay Fiction Speaks and Hear Us Out (Columbia), Brief Lives: Oscar Wilde and Brief Lives: E M Forster (Hesperus), Between Men and Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction (Carroll & Graf) and Between Men 2 and 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (Alyson).


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lammy Awards 2010 Finalists Announced

Congratulations to the Lambda Literary Awards finalists.
Click on links to Chroma reviews of some of the shortlisted titles below and check out Lambda's beautiful new website which received an overhaul recently. Antonio Gonzalez has made substantial improvements to the site with lots of content making it an invaluable resource to the LGBT writing and reading community.

LGBT Anthologies

Gay American Autobiography: Writings from Whitman to Sedaris, edited by David Bergman
Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight Over Sexual Rights, edited by Gilbert Herdt
My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, edited by Michael Montlack
Portland Queer: Tales of the Rose City, edited by Ariel Gore
Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation, edited by Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Bisexual Fiction

Arusha, by J.E. Knowles
Holy Communion, by Mykola Dementiuk
The Janeid, by Bobbie Geary
Love You Two, by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli
Torn, by Amber Lehman

Lesbian Debut Fiction

The Creamsickle, by Rhiannon Argo
The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund
Land Beyond Maps, by Maida Tilchen
More of This World or Maybe Another, by Barb Johnson
Verge, by Z Egloff

Gay Debut Fiction

Blue Boy, by Rakesh Satyal
God Says No, by James Hannaham
Pop Salvation, by Lance Reynald
Shaming the Devil: Collected Short Stories, by G. Winston James
Sugarless, by James Magruder

Gay Erotica

Rough Trade: Dangerous Gay Erotica, edited by Todd Gregory
Impossible Princess, by Kevin Killian
I Like It Like That: True Tales of Gay Desire, edited by Richard Labonté & Lawrence Schimel
The Low Road, by James Lear
Eight Inches, by Sean Wolfe

Lesbian Fiction

Dismantled, by Jennifer McMahon
A Field Guide to Deception, by Jill Malone
Forgetting the Alamo, Or, Blood Memory, by Emma Pérez
Risk, by Elena Dykewomon
This One's Going to Last Forever, by Nairne Holtz

Gay Fiction

Lake Overturn, by Vestal McIntyre
The River In Winter, by Matt Dean
Said and Done, by James Morrison
Salvation Army, by Abdellah Taia
Silverlake, by Peter Gadol

Lesbian Memoir/Biography

Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life, by Mary Cappello
Mean Little deaf Queer, by Terry Galloway
My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement, by Alix Dobkin
Likewise: The High School Comic Chronicles of Ariel Schrag, by Ariel Schrag
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, by Joan Schenkar

Gay Memoir/Biography

Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, by Reynolds Price
City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960's and 70's, by Edmund White
Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, by Jon Ginoli
Once You Go Back, by Douglas A. Martin
The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief, by David Plante

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Saturday, March 06, 2010

Impossible Princess by Kevin Killian

Impossible Princess
Kevin Killian

Published by City Lights

Reviewed by Colin Herd

‘What portion of one’s personality is a fiction?’ So asked San Francisco-based writer Kevin Killian in his contribution to Biting the Error, the crucial and exciting anthology on narrative that came out in 2004, edited by Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy and Gail Scott. It’s a question that swims through Killian’s most recent book of fiction, the collection of short stories Impossible Princess, published by City Lights very late last year. It swims through, dives in, submerges itself, reemerges and winsomely skinny-dips in the at times murky, at turns sparkling ponds of Killian’s energetic, muscular, sassy, exquisite prose. Forgive me getting carried away: I really fell in love with this book.

And it’s very easy to do. There are ten stories in Impossible Princess, each one a tight weave of theatricality and “reveal”, stagey acting out of fantasies and creeping self-realizations; in other words: fiction and personality. Killian’s characters often don a tight-robe, seamlessly acting at the surface but revealing conflicted psychologies below. Take Chris, from ‘Too Far’, which is set (believe it or not) in County Durham and co-authored by Thom Wolf. Chris is a near-forgotten former manufactured-pop-star who has reinvented himself as a credible DJ (Kris) and lives in fear of being recognized as a teen idol. In the process of his transformation we are told he has spent ‘years in the gym… looking for what he calls solid definition’. Or take the story ‘Rochester’ coauthored with Tony Leuzzi, in which characters Kevin and Tony hilariously perform a mentor-pupil relationship involving applesauce while a chimpanzee with the ability to predict the future composes Kevin’s celebrated books on a typewriter in the next room.

At the core of the book (well it’s the sixth of ten stories), ‘Dietmar Lutz Mon Amour’ is more personal and revealing, in spite of its flouncy and glamorous title. It’s a very beautiful love story in fact, told in large part through conversations between a writer, Kevin Killian, and an artist, Dietmar Lutz during the latter’s time in California. At times, Killian’s prose is searing in its honesty like the California sun, or soaring in it’s self-knowledge like the paper airplanes Kevin and Dietmar float into Anton LaVey’s locked up estate:

‘I realized I could go on lying to Dietmar Lutz- or were they lies? They were kind of the truth!- and enchant him for a while, by identifying his pleasure centers and manipulating them across the chasm of cultural difference that made us one man here driving, the other man there, filming our approach to the Black House of Anton LaVey. Thus love gives savor to the lie, injects flavor into the apple’s core.’

The sort of home-turf cultural imperialism that Kevin self-consciously explores here is made more poignant because Dietmar and Kevin’s love story is played out alongside reports and conversations about Mark Bingham, one of the passengers (and heroes) of Flight 93. It suggests a darker more threatening edge between fiction and personality, an edge that is expertly sharpened in the final story in the collection: ‘Greensleeves’, in which a married man tortures his wife’s colleague past breaking point by including his brother in their dom/sub relationship. At the seam between fiction and personality are territorialism, violence and possession.

I’ve always loved that famous photo of Marilyn Monroe reading (and near the end of) Ulysses, while sitting on a climbing frame. It’s definitely got something of the reveal and the staged about it. This book amply shows that the world (and Kevin Killian) deserves a snap of Kylie Minogue in a similar pose, reading (and near the end of) Impossible Princess.

Colin Herd is a poet based in Edinburgh whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, Dogmatika, Gutter, Shampoo, Velvet Mafia and Mirage #4/Period(ical).


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Review: The After-Death Room – Journey into Spiritual Activism

The After-Death Room
by Michael McColly

Published by Soft Skull Press

Reviewed by Kevin Franke

Michael McColly is an American HIV+ journalist, yoga teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer. His book charts, through a mixture of journalism, travelogue and memoir, a journey that leads him to search out African-American preachers in Chicago, Buddhist monks in a Thai monastery, traditional Zulu healers, male sex workers in India, and mullahs in Islamic Senegal. He sets out to explore the world of HIV/AIDS activism from the point of view of an HIV+ person.

He starts his rather haphazard odyssey in South Africa in 2000, having been invited to teach a yoga class as part of an international AIDS conference. He has found in yoga a way of keeping healthy and sane since his own diagnosis in 1996, and he finds great satisfaction in teaching yoga to others along his journey. Yoga becomes his way of connecting more deeply with people when the pain of their situations becomes too much for him.

He soon realises that he is unable to separate the journalist from the person, as the various projects he visits in Thailand, Vietnam and India force him to confront his own attitudes towards the illness and his own health. The journalistic begins to fuse with the personal. There are references to his less-than-perfect health as he travels, though this is never fully explored in the book. This is as much a book about the various organisations that he reports on, as it is a journey of transformation for him personally. He has given up much in order to go on this journey; selling his furniture and giving up his apartment in order to fund his travels. Will it have been worth it in the end?

He comes across an inspiring collection of individuals in the countries that he travels to. He meets people that have been driven to activism mostly through being diagnosed themselves. HIV means something very different in these places than back home, still forming a death sentence for most people due to the unavailability of antiretroviral drugs. For most of these people their only option is to keep themselves as healthy as possible, often using alternative/traditional healing methods, but they know that the disease will ultimately kill them. It becomes a constant challenge for Michael to have to face these people, knowing that he has such easy access to the drugs that could keep them alive.

Michael McColly

Along the way there are some bizarre episodes, such as the mass vaccination of HIV positive people at a football stadium in Bangkok, with a non-proven and questionable drug claimed to be both treatment and cure. Or the museum attached to a Buddhist monastery, preserving the bodies of people that have died from AIDS in formaldehyde tanks.

The book is not always successful in balancing the reportage with the personal (spiritual) journey. It often jumps too quickly from one country or project to another, and therefore lacks a certain structure. But it powerfully tells the stories of the grassroots activists and unsung heroes of the HIV epidemic, and beautifully charts one man’s journey from the shock of his own HIV diagnosis, and the disconnection from life that can often follow, to the recapturing of a part of himself lost long ago.