Book Review Hub




Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, And Dealers Plotted Against The Plague’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

SecondavenueJoyce Brabner’s nonfiction graphic novel recounts the early years of the AIDS crisis as experienced by a tight-knit circle of “gay artists, writers, actors, musicians, dyke activists, drag queens,” who respond to the devastation of the disease with acts of remarkable daring and generosity. 

Brabner’s story centers on Ray, a struggling playwright who earns his living as a nurse. When a doctor he works with offers to hook him up with his “connections in Mexico” in “a potentially beneficial business deal,” Ray begins selling pot to his circle of friends. “The NEA isn’t giving grants to Avant queers,” his partner Ben reasons. “This is our Colombian Arts Council Grant!”

They’re careful to sell only to people they know, and we meet Ray’s vibrant circle of friends, most of them artists, writers, and performers—among them Brabner herself—as they come to his apartment to buy weed. “Fabulous herb…fabulous fantasies…and fabulous friends,” Ray muses, and his apartment becomes the site of “a celebratory, slightly stoned, queer-communal pleasure.”

BrabnerThese early pages of the book are exuberantly joyful, as Ray’s apartment is packed with friends eating and drinking and smoking together, playing games and singing songs, throwing out ideas for plays and musicals, and above all gossiping, cattily and lovingly. Mark Zingarelli’s direct and emotive illustrations capture beautifully the intimacy and trust between these queer outsiders, who create a rich and sustaining family for themselves.

The strength of that community will be tested by the new disease afflicting Ray’s patients. He cares for a man who is “the 24th known case” of what would eventually be called AIDS, and as the scope of the crisis becomes clear, he calls on his friends to “locate gay doctors, researchers, people with some medical training,” quickly creating a network both for information gathering and for providing care to those caught by the wave of infections that sweeps through Ray’s community.

Ray is terrified by the speed with which he loses his friends. “One went so suddenly,” he says, “we knew about it only when we learned he had been buried in a potter’s grave because no one had come to claim him.”

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Shelly Oria’s ‘New York 1, Tel Aviv 0’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Disorientation afflicts nearly all of the characters in Shelly Oria’s nimble and disarmingly moving debut collection of stories. Many of them are (like Oria herself) Israeli immigrants in New York City, navigating multiple cultures and languages; others find themselves in worlds where the usual rules (of weather, say, or time) break down; all of them are bewildered by desire.

Newyork1telaviv0_bThe narrator of the title story has come to the United States after finishing her military service, because “staying in Tel Aviv meant starting my life,” and “It’s a scary thing, starting your life.” As is true throughout the collection, Oria is excellent in detailing how the texture of daily life differs in the two countries: “When I first moved to New York, I kept opening my purse every time I entered a building, before realizing that there was no security guard. And every time I felt relieved, and every time I felt orphaned, and every time I felt surprised at both.”

The book’s title comes from her attempt to keep score of the advantages and disadvantages of her two cities. She never gets very far: “I forget to keep track, and I have to start counting all over again every time.” She meditates on the strangeness of Central Park, “the idea of having a designated area for greenery”: “Tel Aviv isn’t carefully planned like that—trees often choose their own location, and most streets stretch in unpredictable directions, creating a pattern of impulse.”

What’s true of the streets of Tel Aviv is also true of the magnetic men and (more often) women that Oria’s protagonists can’t fully know or possess, and many of the stories are haunted by infidelity. In “This Way I Don’t Have to Be,” a woman is addicted to sleeping with married men. She watches them during sex for the moment they imagine the possibilities they’ve left unlived, when “their entire lives turn to air,” an unsettled state of longing we sense the narrator craves for herself.

In “None the Wiser,” a sly, acid, wonderful story about jealousy and age and grief, a woman’s own desires gradually become clear as she gossips about her neighbors. And in one of the collection’s standout stories, “The Disneyland of Albany,” Avner, an Israeli artist who has left his family behind to seek his career in America, discovers his wife’s infidelity from stray remarks his young daughter makes during a visit.

In the collection’s final story, which might also be its finest, “Phonetic Masterpieces of Absurdity,” the book’s preoccupation with erotic disappointment combines powerfully with one of Oria’s other major themes, the tragedies and absurdities of ongoing conflict in the Middle East—a conflict that her characters can never fully escape, at home or abroad.

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Colm Tóibín's 'Nora Webster': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

It’s hard to explain the speed and excitement with which I turned the pages of the Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s astonishingly beautiful new novel. Nothing extraordinary happens in it, at least at the level of plot, and it’s almost free of the large-scale dramas that usually unify novels and give them their tension and forward momentum.

Nora WebsterInstead of those dramas, Nora Webster offers not just the texture but the shape of what we might call daily life: quotidian events and minor crises swell and then ebb away, without anything building to a life-altering climax. How to understand, then, the profound changes undergone by its protagonist, or—rarer still—how deeply I was moved when I reached the final pages?

When the book begins, Nora Webster has just lost her husband to cancer. This novel is perhaps the most careful and revelatory study of character I have read, but such is Nora’s—and Tóibín’s—reticence that only slowly, over the course of the novel, do we realize how profoundly she loved her husband and how devastated she is by grief, how pain has separated her from the people she loves and undermined the certainties of her life.

Instead of grand gestures of mourning, the opening chapters concern themselves with the petty annoyances of living in a small town. The book is set in Wexford, Ireland, where Nora is surrounded by people she has known since childhood. “She knew the story of her life,” Nora thinks about one woman, “down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried.”

Nora has to defend herself against both the sympathy and the prying of the town, carving out a privacy in which she can learn how to bear her new circumstances. “She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live." 

Part of what this means is learning how to relate to her children again, who have changed in the months that she spent caring for her husband as he died. Her daughters are away at school, and during their visits she finds herself excluded from a new intimacy they have forged. “It was like being in a room with people who knew each other in ways that she did not, who had a language in common but, perhaps more importantly, could understand each other’s silence.”

Her two young sons return from the house of the aunt who kept them, and since they don’t speak of their father Nora doesn’t understand at first how deeply they are grieving. But Donal, the older of the two boys, wakes at night screaming with nightmares, and Nora discovers that he has been bullying his younger brother. The book is deeply moving in its portrayal of Nora’s bewilderment as a single parent: “She did not know whether it was better for him to cry or not to cry,” Nora thinks at one point about Donal. “Someone would know that, she thought, but she did not.”

Nora returns to work for the first time since her marriage, and with financial independence comes, very slowly, a new confidence and eagerness for life. “It pleased her now to be grateful to no one,” she thinks at one point, as she begins to explore new interests and to discover a new strength. She learns almost not to care about the gossip she knows her actions provoke, and, having established her privacy, she learns how to engage with her family and neighbors in a more authentic and nourishing way.

Most profoundly, Nora finds a way toward a new life through music. Her mother had been a singer, and in the months after her husband’s death (the book covers a period of about three years), Nora begins taking singing lessons. She sings Irish songs, but also Schubert and Brahms, and at meetings of the Gramophone Society, a group of classical music lovers a friend encourages her to join, she discovers a depth of response to music that suggests to her possibilities for life she had never considered.

Colm_ToibinAs she listens to a Beethoven trio, Nora “thought how easy it might have been to be someone else, that having the boys at home waiting for her, and the bed and the lamp beside her bed, and her work in the morning, were all a sort of accident. They were somehow less solid than the clear notes of the cello that came through the speakers." 

The end of the novel doesn’t offer any final resolution of Nora’s troubles and dissatisfactions; there’s no tidy summing up of lessons learned. Nora hasn’t healed from her husband’s loss, but she is a changed person from the woman we met in the first pages, able now to face both her grief for the dead and her responsibilities to the living.

Colm Tóibín has already written, The Master and Brooklyn, two of my favorite novels of the last decade, and his essay collection, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar, is essential reading. But Nora Webster is an even greater achievement than those earlier books. Tóibín has mastered a rare alchemy, somehow producing, again and again, a kind of quiet sublimity out of the unvarnished moments of daily life. Read this book. I’m not sure art gets much better.

Previous reviews...
Saeed Jones’s ‘Prelude to Bruise’
Michael Carroll’s ‘Little Reef and Other Stories’
Francine Prose’s ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’
Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir’

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 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.


Saeed Jones’s ‘Prelude To Bruise’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Saeed Jones begins this electrifying book—one of the most exciting debut collections I’ve read in years—with a quotation from Kafka’s notebooks: “The man in ecstasy and the man drowning—both throw up their arms.”

Prelude to BruiseIt’s a powerful opening for these searing poems, in which pleasure and pain are often indistinguishable, and in which desire is almost always inextricable from violence. “I’ve got more hunger than my body can hold,” Jones writes in “Last Call,” and hunger often drives the speakers of these poems to danger. “Night presses the gunmetal O of its mouth / against my own,” he writes in the same poem; “I can’t help how I answer.”

How to tell apart joy and pain in a book where dancing is “a way / of mapping out hell with my feet,” as Jones writes in “In Nashville,” and looks like “Guernica on all fours” (“Katamine and Company”), where “Even a peacock feather comes to a point” (“Thallium”)?

In “Pretending to Drown,” even one of the book’s most tender scenes—two boys go skinny dipping together—holds out the promise of a threat. The speaker sinks under the water to see the other boy “as the lake saw you: cut in half / by the surface, taut legs kicking / the rest of you sky.” It’s a game, but also an invitation, and when he comes back up it’s accepted: “slick grin, / knowing glance; you pushed me / back under. // I pretended to drown, / then swallowed you whole.”

In Prelude to Bruise, Jones takes on at once the most intimate and the most public of themes: desire, family, race, art, America and its romance with violence. But the book’s real ambition is to force us to see that any division between public and private is arbitrary, if not fraudulent. It’s often said that the personal is political; few books have made me feel it as viscerally as this one.

These poems bear witness to the fact that to be black and gay in America—and especially in the American South—is to be confronted with violence from every side: on the street and in the home; from strangers and friends alike; most painfully, from within the self.

Many of the poems take place in cities—Birmingham, Jasper, New Orleans—that are sites of particular trauma in the history of race in America. In “Lower Ninth,” the speaker observes the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, still devastated long after Katrina. In “Jasper, 1998,” a haunting poem, Jones takes on the voice of James Byrd, who was dragged to death in Texas by three white supremacists. In the poem’s devastating final section, Jones uses the particularly American rhythm of the chain gang to make us feel Byrd’s torture: 

                        Chain gang, work song, back road,
                        my body.
                        Chain gang, work song, back road,
                        my body.

The book’s protagonist is known only as “Boy,” a name that condenses to a single word many of this collection’s difficult themes. It’s at once a term of tenderness (“he’s still your boy,” the poem “Insomniac” says to a worried mother) and desire (in internet chatrooms every second screen name is a variant of “boy”); it’s also a term of race hatred. In the collection’s title poem, it’s spoken in both desire and hatred at once, when during sex a man tells the speaker, “I like my black boys broke, or broken. / I like to break my black boys in.”

Saeed-Jones-author-photoIn “History, According to Boy,” the powerful prose narrative that closes the volume, we follow Boy through a childhood landscape scarred by violence, if not quite literally made of it: in a country at constant war, in a city where gay men are murdered behind bars, he lives in a “house made of guns.” Eyes are “narrow as knife wounds”; “a bare lightbulb shines…like a lynched moon.”

Boy is an alien both in and out of his home, increasingly as both he and those around him become more aware of what he desires. The violence around him intensifies, until in the final scene he finds himself nearly engulfed by it, on the point of becoming not just a victim but a perpetrator of terrible acts.

Like the great poets his lines recall—Whitman, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, James Baldwin, to name just a few of the voices that inform this book—Jones makes a music that feels adequate to rage and grief on both a personal and a national scale. Prelude to Bruise is more than a promising debut; it’s the rare book of poetry that urgently speaks—and will continue to speak, I suspect, for a long time—to the intractable griefs of our present moment.

Previous reviews...
Michael Carroll’s ‘Little Reef and Other Stories’
Francine Prose’s ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’
Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir’
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’

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 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.


Lesbian Journalist Julie Bindel Says Sexual Orientation Is a Choice

In her new book Straight Expectations, Julie Bindel argues that sexual orientation is a choice.  The journalist, campaigner, and feminist also says that people believe that they are born gay because of “internalised doctrine.”

BindelIn an interview in today’s Independent, Bindel also argues that there is no biological explanation for homosexuality and that there “has to be some kind of choice, as well as some deep-rooted, embedded responses that developed through different experiences in our childhood.”

Bindel, who with her partner co-founded Justice for Women which campaigns for female victims of domestic violence, says that her arguments regarding the causes of homosexuality have been “drowned out” by obsessed scientists and by those who use the gay gene argument to provoke sympathy.

Asked how and why people would choose to be gay in countries with oppressive anti-homosexuality laws, Bindel says:

“I don’t know.  All I know is I’ve never been convinced by a scientific argument, or seen any evidence that is compelling that there is something innate about our sexuality. What I’m suggesting is, there are people who could go one way or the other and happily choose to be lesbian or gay.”

However, writing in The Independent, Patrick Strudwick says that Bindel claims that she herself did not make that choice:

“Because I needed to leave home – there was nothing there for me in Darlington – and pursue my feminist possibilities, that meant starting a new life and all that was open to me. I fell in with a crowd [in Leeds] who spoke about lesbianism as part of women’s liberation. I never chose to be attracted to women.”

Strudwick also claims that what Bindel means by sexual preference being a choice is actually making a decision “to have a gay relationship, identify as gay, come out and lead a gay life (whatever that is).”

(image via twitter)


Michael Carroll’s ‘Little Reef And Other Stories’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

The characters in the moving, innovative stories of Michael Carroll’s debut collection always find themselves just to the side of the world’s attention. In the beautiful “Referred Pain,” the lonely wife of a famous writer entertains graduate students desperate for his approval. In “Barracuda,” a young woman working at a PR firm meets the pop star who is their biggest client. In all of these stories, Carroll explores, with confidence and humanity, lives torn between awareness of all they have and bitter grasping for what they still want.

Little ReefIn the first of the book’s two sections (largely set in Florida), New York City represents the success that the characters long for. In “From the Desk of…Hunter B. Gwathmey,” the book’s first story, a young writer wins a high school writing contest and meets the local literati. For all that at first they strike him as glamorous, he soon realizes they aren’t living the kind of life he hopes for. “I hated Jacksonville, but then it occurred to me, in a sickening, sneak-preview-of-real-life type of revelation, that not everybody could live in New York, and that even some smart, talented people ended up having to make do in the provinces.”

It’s a realization that haunts this collection and its various talented, almost successful characters. “Not everyone was going to be successful,” Carroll writes at one point, “and it was cruel to ask them to try to be.”

Much of the pleasure of the book’s first half lies in Carroll’s depiction of the south. “Florida was a nutty business,” Carroll writes, and he excels at capturing the bizarre mix of awkward politeness and hysteria that characterizes so much of the southern manner. These stories offer one of the most convincing representations I’ve seen of southern speech—not by mimicking accent or dialect, but by tracing the shape of southern talk, with its suspensions and redirections, its sudden fits and starts.

The unpredictable drift of southern conversation may lie behind the unconventional shape of many of these stories. In an interview with the writer Andrew Holleran, Carroll speaks about his desire to break free of the traditional structure of the short story, in which rising action leads to climax, resolution, and epiphany or realization. Instead, he allows his stories to find their way in a looser, less predetermined way, allowing for sudden juxtapositions and unexpected turns and constant, vivifying surprise.

MichaelCarrollIt also allows for the emergence of what may be Carroll’s greatest strength, his ability to inhabit the deep consciousness of his characters. “What was writing except a direct line into someone’s head,” the wife in “Referred Pain” muses, and what makes Carroll’s characters so vivid is the access we’re given to their experience of their own lives.

And so, in “Referred Pain,” when the protagonist has an affair with one of her husband’s students, we experience it with an intimacy beyond mere explicitness: “He dropped his head next to hers and drove the side of his face into the pillow looking the other way. Her hand motions got wider and she felt his thighs relaxing and when he rose up she kissed his chest, too desperately, she thought. You didn’t do anything too desperate, so then she cooled off, tried to make a joke, yet keeping her hands near him.”

This experience of consciousness is nowhere more intense, and nowhere more moving, than in the five linked stories that make up the book’s second half. Each of these stories, which are told in both first and third person, centers on an aspiring writer who is in a long-term partnership, then marriage, with an older, much more successful novelist whose health is in decline.

In everything we learn about their lives, and also in the description Carroll offers of the older writer’s work, we’re invited to imagine that these characters are thinly disguised versions of Carroll and the legendary writer Edmund White, whom Carroll recently married after a relationship of nearly two decades. Like White, the fictional Perry has suffered a series of strokes, and his younger partner, who has spent years preparing manuscripts and keeping house, finds himself increasingly taking on the role of nurse.

“My job was to shop and cook and clean,” says Scott, the younger member of the couple in these stories, “and his was to create.” It’s easy to hear bitterness in the line, and these stories are extraordinarily candid in their depiction of a loving but not easy relationship. “There was no plan for who we were. Night was long for us. We’d go to bed separately. I read, which had become my coping strategy. I could live with him as long as we slept separately.” 

And yet what’s clearest in the stories of Scott and Perry, especially in the extraordinary “Admissions,” is their care for one another, and Scott’s terror at the prospect of an unbearable loss. It’s this terror—the awareness of death—that gives these stories their moral force, and that translates the grasping for fame or achievement into a profounder struggle. And it’s love that finally allows Carroll’s characters to escape—only for a time, but no less authentically for that—from their self-made prisons of jadedness and need.

Invoking the southern religious language that haunts these pages (“One day the Bible would have no effect on Scott at all. But not yet”), the protagonist of “Barracuda” casts a bit of hope in the way of her gorgeous, promising, limited friends: “From emotional midgets—too beautiful to live inside their awfully conflicted selves—sometimes came great, kind gestures, and perhaps they, too, would be saved. Despite their sweet bastard selves.”

Previous reviews...
Francine Prose’s ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’
Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir’
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’

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.


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