Best gay blog. Towleroad Wins Award

Book Review Hub



04/19/2007


Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

On the first page of Tatamkhulu Afrika’s intense and passionate novel, the narrator, Tom Smith, receives a package from a man he hasn’t seen in half a century. What it contains will send him back to the years he spent in Italian and German POW camps during the Second World War, camps that, for all their horror, Tom remembers as a “Bitter Eden.”

Bitter EdenThe book’s depiction of the day-to-day life in those camps is extraordinary. Captured in Northern Africa, Tom finds himself in a desperate world of starvation and ingenuity, of lice and cigarette economies and amateur entertainments. It’s “a place where anything unclaimed is everyone’s prey,” and where in their hunger men become nothing more than “meat wanting more meat so that it can go on being meat.” It is a brutal place, and yet it allows for intimacies and affections the broader world prohibits.

In this exclusively male world, men pair off with their “mates” to form ambiguous domestic relationships. The heterosexual Tom grudgingly allows himself to be claimed by Douglas, who disgusts him with his “almost womanliness,” and whose eagerness for Tom’s friendship reminds him of “a drowning clown or a tart desperate for trade.” That such relationships are often sexual is an open secret, and Tom’s cruelty to Douglas is a way of keeping at bay what he fears is Douglas’s desire for more intimacy than he can offer. 

This uneasy domestic arrangement is disrupted when Tom meets Danny, a British prisoner who makes Tom question what he thinks he knows about his own desires. “Sometimes I try to face up to the amorphous beast of how I feel,” Tom says, “lend it shape, substance, of which I can ask questions, have hope of a reply.” Increasingly anxious, he asks himself, “Am I one of them? Am I in love with a man?”  

The triangle between Tom, Danny, and Douglas will eventually turn tragic, but the book is most interested in the love between Tom and Danny, which will surprise both of them with its ferocity. That intensity is reflected in Afrika’s prose, which often takes on a hothouse lyricism that throbs with emotion.

In the book’s most beautiful moment, Danny wakes Tom to an eerie midnight scene: “a host of thousands of us are standing between the huts, motionlessly and silently as though bewitched, faces upturned under the full moon to the flank of the nearby hill.” Tom is confused until he hears the song of a nightingale, whose beauty has drawn the men from their beds: “‘So small a throat!’ I am thinking. ‘So small a throat!’ as the soaring gusts of sound, pitched a note’s breadth this side of sense, flood, copiously as the moon’s light, effortlessly as that which needs no struggling breath nor fiddling hand, out over hills, churches, shrines, our ragbag selves.”  

Afrika has a distinctive voice, a strange mixture of coarseness and composure, with a cadence informed by the Old Testament. At times, especially as he describes the deprivations of the camps, his sentences fall into a psalmic lilt: “and the skeletons we pretended we did not have begin to show, and our lips crack like the old mud’s heaving apart, and our tongues are the tumescences our loins no longer need.”

Tatamkhulu AfrikaWhile the book has met with great acclaim, some reviewers have complained that it suffers from melodrama, and it’s true that Afrika is drawn to extreme situations and the emotions they evoke, emotions he isn’t inclined to express with understatement. But I found myself increasingly entranced by this novel, which draws on Afrika’s own experiences as a POW. In its final sections, which recount first a forced march and then Tom’s initial days of freedom, including Danny’s remarkable and surprising courage in facing up to what he feels, I found myself harrowed and extraordinarily moved.

Bitter Eden appeared in the UK in 2002, just weeks before Afrika’s death. It has taken twelve years for the novel to reach the United States, and this very handsome hardcover edition is a labor of love for Stephen Morrison, the head of Picador, who wrote about the book’s long journey in Publishers Weekly. American readers are lucky to have the chance to read this beautiful book, a record of a man’s attempts to explore “the unpredictable thickets of my self,” where he finds that “a nothing that is everything is continuing to be said.” 

Previous reviews...
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

 


Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Aaliya Selah, the irreverent, vibrant, hilarious, and fiercely solitary narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s brilliant new novel, has practiced a strange, consoling ritual for fifty years. Over the course of twelve months, beginning on January 1st, she translates a book, perfects it, seals it in a box, and places it in the back room of the apartment in Beirut where she has spent her entire adult life. No one reads these pages, including Aaliya herself: “Once the book is done,” she says, “the wonder dissolves and the mystery is solved. It holds little interest after.”

RabihIn a world where women’s lives revolve around husbands and children, Aaliya has lived alone since her husband divorced her after four failed years of youthful marriage. In her 70s now, estranged from her family, almost friendless, no longer working in the bookshop she tended for years, Aaliya has become the “unnecessary woman” of the title. “I am nothing,” she says at her most despondent; “I’m a wholly nondescript human.”

But the space of the “unnecessary” is also the space of art, and in the absence of the usual obligations Aaliya has dedicated herself to literature. She fills her days with reading, and she works on her translations in a kind of absolute innocence, free of any taint of commerce or fame. “I’m committed to the process and not the final product,” she says. “It’s the act that inspires me, the work itself.”

One of the wonders of this novel is how, from the perspective of such an outwardly circumscribed existence, Alameddine offers a rich, variegated portrait of a community. Though she hardly talks to them, Aaliya participates in the lives of her neighbors, women who gather daily for coffee and conversation, which Aaliya follows from her room. Though she doesn’t like to admit it, she weeps with both their sorrows and their joys.

She also, at least from time to time, descends into the streets of Beirut, a city for which she feels a deep and ambivalent love. “Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities,” Aaliya says, “insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden.” She remembers its many recent traumas, including civil war and Israeli siege, the marks of which are visible in bullet holes and armored stairwells. Her own apartment was broken into by looters, which prompted her to take steps toward her own defense; for years she “slept with an AK-47 instead of a husband.”  

But it’s a different kind of intruder that disturbs Aaliya’s peace in Alameddine’s novel. Startled one afternoon by a knock at the door, Aaliya finds her brother’s family, with her elderly, senile mother in tow. They insist that it’s Aaliya’s turn to care for the old woman; Aaliya, her need for independence outweighing her remorse, even horror, at her own cruelty, refuses: “‘No,’ I say, in a low, sticky tone. ‘She is not mine.’”

But it’s the mother’s response that is most shocking. When she sees her daughter and realizes where she is, she screams, “a defiant skirl of terror that does not slow or tire.” This scream will haunt the rest of the book, finally compelling Aaliya to undertake a journey into her past that may also, in unexpected and surprisingly tender ways, be an opening toward her future.

AlameddineAaliya constantly expresses her disdain for the tidy endings that mar so many literary texts, the revelations and epiphanies that allow for the kind of resolution that real life almost never achieves. But as the novel progresses it’s clear she is approaching her own reckoning, an increasingly desperate sense that, instead of giving meaning to her life, her devotion to literature may have kept her from the work of living.

“I made myself feel better by reciting jejune statements like ‘Books are the air I breathe,’” she writes, “or, worse, ‘Life is meaningless without literature,’ all in a weak attempt to avoid the fact that I found the world inexplicable and impenetrable.” While she has prided herself on being above the myths of politics and religion that have wreaked such havoc in the world, Aaliya comes to feel that she may have made her own false idol of art. 

But this won’t be Aaliya’s final or immutable judgment, and the book bears witness to the uncounterfeitable joy she has taken in literature, a joy I found myself sharing as I read this extraordinary book. Aaliya Saleh’s voice is an indelible addition to the literary chorus she so loves, and An Unnecessary Woman is the most remarkable new novel I have read in many months.

Previous reviews...
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


David Edison's 'The Waking Engine': Book Review

BY CHRISTIAN WALTERS

Death is not the end. Or, at least, not until you've died a lot. In the world of author David Edison's debut novel The Waking Engine, when a person dies the "soul" shifts to another world in another reality with memories and personality intact to begin another life anew, again and again.

The Waking Engine coverEventually they shift to a place called 'The City Unspoken' where a lasting 'True Death' - that is, a permant rest and an end to shifting from world to world - can be found for the lucky few who earn it. This was one of the first things that native New Yorker Cooper learned after waking up on the hill of Displacement outside The City Unspoken. However, something has stopped the True Death. What's more, some can't even simply die normally and shift worlds, inexplicibly cursed to a sort of unlife and left stranded in their present world.

Meanwhile, the aristocratic denizens under the sealed Dome within The City Unspoken are suffering from an inverse crisis. Though they are bodybound - when they die they simply regenerate after a short amount of time, neither experiencing True Death nor shifting to another world - someone amongst them has found a weapon capable of administering True Death and is using it to pick them off, one by one, for reasons unknown.

Edison does an excellent job of imparting the confusion of Cooper as he experiences the sheer alien-ness of The City Unspoken and its multi-dimensional denizens onto the reader, and precious little handholding is given to usher the reader from one improbable event to the next, trusting the reader to make sense of it all. And it does start making sense, eventually. Events that at first seem to be scattered and unconnected, a few of which border on non-sequitur, become intricately woven as greater plots are revealed and schemes within schemes come to light.

Because of this, the reader should be prepared to pay attention as The Waking Engine is not a breezy read; by that same token Edison has quite the expanded vocabulary and isn't afraid to use $20 SAT words.

David EdisonOne of the standout features of the book is the treatment of Cooper as an openly-gay character. As a gay man himself, Edison didn't hesitate to make him the main protagonist. There are no subtle hints about his orientation nor is he "coded", Cooper is just flat-out gay, and his sexuality is treated the same way that the sexuality of heterosexual characters usually is: as a part of the character. It is neither Cooper's defining characteristic, nor is it some unimportant incidental like his shoe size. He's simply gay. This is a lesson that so many writers, both in and outside of genre fiction, could take note of when trying to figure out how to write gay characters, and it's encouraging to see one so well-represented.

The Waking Engine isn't without its flaws, however. For such an imaginative world, Cooper takes it all in remarkable stride, and his clueless befuddlement sometimes comes across as a blasé going-with-the-flow. Some of the supporting cast, such as Cooper's two companions Sesstri and Asher, feel very flat at times and would have benefitted from some further fleshing out. Also, despite most events coming together by the end, some of the sequences of events are just a bit too jumbled or obscure and there were a few instances where I felt like I had missed reading some connecting event.

Even with the few flaws, The Waking Engine is garnering favorable reviews, and it's a book I would recommend for anyone who wants to read something with a strong gay protagonist, and whose story and setting break molds and defy conventions. Just be sure to have a thesaurus handy.


Edmund White’s ‘Inside A Pearl: My Years In Paris’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Reading Edmund White’s fascinating, vital new memoir, which covers the fifteen years he spent in France in the 1980s and 90s, feels a little like attending the world’s most fabulous cocktail party. The pages are filled with impossibly glamorous people doing impossibly glamorous things, from literary lights like Susan Sontag and Julian Barnes and Alan Hollinghurst, to celebrities of a different stratosphere, like Lauren Bacall and Tina Turner and Yves Saint Laurent.

Inside a PearlAt the center of it all is White, who for four decades has been, in both fiction and nonfiction, our preeminent chronicler of gay life. When the period covered by Inside a Pearl begins, in 1983, White has just published his classic novel A Boy’s Own Story, and he arrives in Paris armed with that success, as well as high school French and sixteen thousand dollars from a Guggenheim Fellowship.

He’s wonderful at describing the disorientation of those first months, and especially at conveying linguistic struggles that will be familiar to anyone who has lived abroad: “After I’d present my own carefully displayed sentence like a diamond necklace on black velvet, the other speaker, the French person, would throw his sentence at me like a handful of wet sand. It would sting so badly that I’d wince, and an instant later I would wonder what had just happened to me.”

White quickly finds his feet in Paris, working for Vogue, learning the language, and writing his books, among them a brilliant biography of the gay novelist Jean Genet. Nor were all of his pursuits literary: as in all of his work, White speaks with breathtaking candor in these pages about his sexual life, including innumerable tricks and a number of longer affairs. He can be deliriously indiscreet, as when he talks of first meeting the great British novelist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, when the two of them quickly found themselves “sniffing each other’s genitals like dogs.”

Inside a Pearl has a loose, associative structure, and you may find yourself frustrated if you read it looking for a clear narrative organizing the book. Instead, there are many small narratives, wonderful anecdotes and asides and ruminations. White refers to himself at one point as an “archaeologist of gossip,” and the book might best be approached as a collection of particularly inspired gossip: sometimes a bit scandalous, almost always good-hearted, and thoroughly entertaining.

This isn’t to say that the book lacks pathos or weight. White weathers the most intense period of the AIDS crisis in Paris, and while he writes that he hoped to find there “an AIDS holiday, a recess from the emergencies of the disease,” he instead finds that “Death was my constant shadow.” One of the founders of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, as well as its first president, White received his own diagnosis in Europe, when he and his lover at the time got tested together. His lover was negative, White was positive; the night after learning his status, he was “in anguish and couldn’t sleep, not because I was afraid of dying but because I knew my wonderful adult romance…was doomed.”

The book’s most moving sequence tells the story of White’s relationship with Hubert Sorin, whom he fictionalized in his novels The Farewell Symphony and The Married Man. When Hubert becomes ill, White cares for him through an agonizing decline. Not least among the torments of White’s long vigil over Hubert’s dying is the fear that he might himself have infected his lover. (Doctors eventually reassure White that this wasn't the case.) Though only a few pages long, White’s account of his final trip with Hubert to Morocco, during which Hubert collapses and eventually dies in a clinic where the hostile nurses are amused by his “pitiful state,” is a devastating portrait of grief.

While White writes both movingly and amusingly of his lovers, his real genius is for friendship, and it’s the portrait of a great friend that spans the book and gives it its greatest sense of coherence. White first met Marie-Claude de Brunhoff in 1975, and it’s her friendship that he credits with his discovery of France. Witty, insecure, elegant, Marie-Claude—“MC,” as White calls her—is a recurring presence in the memoir, as White helps her survive her abandonment by her husband (Laurent de Brunhoff, who continued the Babar books begun by his father) and remains at her side as she battles, at first successfully, the cancer that on its return would cause her death in 2008.

Edmund_white_0MC is an artist—she makes Joseph Cornell-like boxes—but it’s her person and her life that White admires as her greatest creation. In the book’s first paragraph, he says that on their first meeting she “gleamed like the inside of a nautilus shell,” an image that echoes the memoir’s title. It also echoes an idea of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, whom White knew: at the end of his life, White writes, Foucault came to believe that “the basis of morality after the death of God might be the ancient Greek aspiration to leave your life as a beautiful, burnished artifact.”

It’s an appealing idea to anyone who has spent his life, as White has, in the service of art. Inside a Pearl is a beautiful, hugely endearing, often brilliant book, a worthy record of White’s attempt to be true to what he sees as the several purposes of his life: “to teach, to trick, to write, to memorialize, to be a faithful scribe, to record the loss of my dead.”

Previous reviews...
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Janette Jenkins' 'Firefly': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

This short, beautiful novel takes place over a brief period in 1971, as the British playwright and composer Noël Coward, in the final years of his life, suffers from a weak heart and a slipping mind. Having fled both the gray skies and the high taxes of London, Coward spends his days at his Jamaican estate, Firefly, sunbathing and painting and sharing the occasional dinner or (more often) drinks with friends. But mostly he reminisces, increasingly disoriented as he slips between his diminished present and his glorious past. 

FireflyI can think of only a few books (Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers among them) that evoke so movingly a consciousness adrift in old age. It’s a strategy that allows Jenkins access to Coward’s whole biography, while freeing her from any burden of biographical linearity or exhaustiveness. The book shifts with virtuosic fluency between the bright heat of Jamaica and London’s chill damp, bringing childhood memories, artistic triumphs, and sexual conquests to life with exquisitely curated detail.

We see Noël as a boy, speculating about the lives passing in the houses he can see from his bedroom window, and then, imagining himself being watched in turn, giving “a flick of a bow” as he lets the curtain drop. A little later, after his first sexual encounter, “colliding and laughing” with another boy on the wet rocks by a stream, “he can see a frog springing from the bank side; a splash as it leaps into the water.”

Jenkins’ Coward isn’t always a pleasant character, especially in the present-day scenes. He’s always ready with a withering remark, and he lashes out, at times violently, at the Jamaican servants on whom he depends for the most basic tasks. (When, with great difficulty, he manages to do up his own shirt buttons, “he doesn’t know whether to shout, ‘Hurrah!’ or to burst into tears.”) But he still possesses, at least in snatches, the quick and sometimes cutting wit that fills his plays. “Oh, you know everyone,” one unlucky acquaintance says to him over dinner. “‘No,’ says Noël, ‘Everyone knows me.’”

One of the most moving aspects of Jenkins’ portrait is how clearly she shows that the very wit for which he’s famous has become a prison for Coward, an elaborate armor that no longer enables expression, but prevents it. Coward tosses off stylish witticisms and ironic bons mots with ease, but statements of genuine emotion seem beyond him, even as his inner life throbs with feeling. When asked whether he loves his companion of three decades, Graham Payn, the best Jenkins’ Coward can manage is “We’ve certainly had our moments.”  

Janette-jenkinsPayn and other friends make appearances in these pages, but for the most part Coward has left them behind, retreating to a small studio at some distance from the main house. Here, through most of the book, he’s attended only by Patrice, his Jamaican servant. Twenty-two, desperate to escape Jamaica, excited by the prospect of life as a waiter in London (his dream is to work at the Ritz), Patrice’s chatter and enthusiasm are juxtaposed with the jaded cynicism of Coward, who at the end of a brilliantly accomplished life seems nearly finished with the world and its delights.

It’s the relationship between Coward and Patrice—patient and caretaker, patron and supplicant, master and servant—that provides the emotional center of the novel. Jenkins has made a vivid, caustic, funny, deeply sympathetic portrait of an artist who is finally as limited as he is brilliant. “Hearts aren’t meant to be noticed, they’re just meant to work,” her Coward thinks as he struggles to finish the afternoon walk his doctor has prescribed. As the novel comes to its at once delicate and devastating end, it’s a different working of the heart he can’t ignore.

Previous reviews...
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’
David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’
Thomas Glave’s ‘Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh’
 
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.


Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion Of Gengoroh Tagame: Master Of Gay Erotic Manga’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

PassionI tend to cover my eyes at horror movies, if I can’t avoid them altogether; I hate violence of all kinds; Law & Order has about as much gore as I can manage. And yet, when I first flipped through this collection of Gengoroh Tagame’s erotic manga, which is obsessed with the domination and  torture of burly, hyper-masculine men, all of it depicted in sexual explicitness, my reaction shifted quickly from cringing shock, to fascination, to something like amazement.

In the most brutal of the seven graphic narratives here (there are also helpful essays by Edmund White, Chip Kidd, and Graham Kolbeins), men are kidnapped, drugged, beaten, and raped in horrible ways, often for the entertainment of an audience. In no way is this book for everyone, as Tagame himself acknowledges in discussion with Kolbeins. But neither is it a book only for those whose fantasies tend in the direction of Tagame’s own. I loved this book by the time I finished it, and I found myself lingering over even very brutal panels, not out of titillation but wonder.

This has mostly to do with Tagame’s art. Even in depicting violence, his drawings have an extraordinary delicacy, conveying extremes of emotion—humiliation, pain, despair, but also arousal, relief and, in one story, heartbreaking devotion—with incredible economy. The essays offered here discuss Tagame’s debt to Japanese woodblock prints, and I found myself marveling at the fine textures of his work, the gorgeous patterning of clothing, floor tiles, landscapes, the hairs on a man’s legs or the sweat on his face. 

Most of Tagame’s panels are too explicit to be shared here. But my own introduction to his work came through this wonderful short video my brilliant friend Max Freeman made as part of an interview he did with Tagame for the Huffington Post. (Max is also one of the creators of the fabulous queer web series The 3 Bits, whose Kickstarter campaign you should rush over to support.) In the video, Max films Tagame making one of his sketches (this one is rated PG) and talking charmingly about how he became an artist. 

 

For all their beauty as art, the narratives collected in The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame—appearing here for the first time in English—are also compelling as stories. They range across genres, styles, and historical periods, and often have elements of fantasy or science fiction. (One story features a drug that turns men into sexual beasts; another has a detective who receives psychic revelations through sexual experiences of certain kinds.) Though all of them have at their center sexual interactions defined by domination and submission, not all of them are brutal. In four of the stories, the sex is consensual, and in my favorite, the very moving “Exorcism,” a world of samurai warriors is the unexpected setting for almost unbearable tenderness. 

TagameIt may be precisely this emotional range that lifts Tagame’s manga. In “Missing,” a story of political kidnapping that has some of the most excruciating scenes in the book, what seems like an unremittingly dark narrative transforms suddenly into a story of love, if of a disquieting kind. These kinds of moves elevate Tagame’s stories above simple narrative frames for sexual acts, and they kept me dizzied and invested as I read. As did the intelligence that's everywhere evident in these pages, a restless interrogation of phenomena with which we’re all complicit, whether the ritualization of violence in sport and entertainment or the cult of masculinity that Tagame’s stories repeatedly undermine and exploit.

I don’t think it’s likely I would have found this collection without Max’s video and the recommendation of other friends. Had I stumbled upon it in a bookstore, I’m fairly sure I would have set it down after the briefest of glances. But reading it through I felt what is one of my measures of meaningful art: having spent time in Tagame’s imagination, I turn from it with a richer sense of the world. As I say above, this book certainly isn’t for everyone—but don’t be too quick to conclude that it isn’t for you. 

Previous reviews...
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’
David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’
Thomas Glave’s ‘Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh’
Duncan Fallowell’s ‘How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.


Trending



Towleroad - Blogged