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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.

 


Virginia School District to Hold Public Hearing on Parent's Request To Pull 'Two Boys Kissing' from Library

A parent's request to remove David Levithan's novel Two Boys Kissing from a high school library has prompted a public hearing in a Virginia school district, Fauquier.com reports:

Two-boys-kissingFauquier County Public Schools has received a request from a parent to withdraw from student use the book “Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan which is a part of the high schools’ library collections. A school committee at Fauquier High School decided to retain the book in its library collection, and the parent is appealing the decision to the superintendent.

In accordance with Policy 6-5.7, the associate superintendent is forming a review committee. On Wednesday, April 23 in the conference room of the school board office, the committee will consider the complainant’s request. From 1:30-3 p.m. the committee will interview the complainant and possibly others related to the decision to withdraw or retain the book. From 3-4 p.m. the committee will hold a public hearing during which time interested citizens may speak to the review committee concerning the subject. The committee will discuss its findings and render a decision on the same date. All proceedings on April 23 are open to the public.

Here's part of what our book critic Garth Greenwell said about the novel, which he called "ambitious, humane, [and] extraordinarily moving":

The wonder of Two Boys Kissing is that it seems entirely adequate to the world in which young gay people live today. It’s a world in which one boy can be embraced, even celebrated by his family, while his boyfriend is terrified of being found out by his parents. It’s a world in which young people can attend a gay prom and fall headily in love, and then find themselves confronting violence on their second date. And, most painfully, both for the reader and for the chorus of lost elders who speak to us, it’s a world in which gay young people still feel driven to commit violent acts against themselves.

But Levithan’s novel doesn’t just feel adequate to our present; it also—and, in my reading of LGBT literature for young people, uniquely—feels adequate to our past. Maybe Levithan’s most poignant theme is the relationship between young gay people and the generation that preceded them, a generation given voice to by the grieving, exulting, longing ghost chorus that speaks to us on every page.


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.


Randall Mann's 'Straight Razor': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Straight RazorThe elegant, savage poems of Randall Mann’s excellent third collection are filled with the unglamorous stuff of daily life, from a childhood of ketchup on quiche to the “Meat-Rack ambitions” of young adulthood in San Francisco. Mann is a rarity in current American poetry, a formal poet, committed to traditional structures of rhythm and rhyme. But there’s nothing old-fashioned in Mann’s mastery of old techniques, which he puts to use in poems that are moving and funny and vicious, and always electrically alive. 

The early poems in the book are full of the claustrophobia of gay boyhood in the suburban South. In a landscape of Supercuts and Pall Malls and Cinnabons, the speaker of these poems quickly stands out:                     

                        Bloody, slick, and fierce,
                        I slid out of the womb.
                        My heart was underfed.
                        My mouth began to foam.

                        At six I bit my lip
                        and took to backyard voguing:
                        I struck a rigid pose
                        in vigilante leggings.

School is a minefield of dangerous crushes on unobtainable boys (“my fear—Smear / the Queer”), of used towels snatched from locker rooms. At 20, he’s found different dangers in the bars he frequents, “the gin-soaked dread / that an acronym was festering inside,” as well as the cast of his own desires, which lead him to anonymous, sometimes brutal sexual encounters.

In the book’s title poem, a man holds a straight razor to the speaker’s ear as part of erotic play: 

                                                            ….Sticky, cold,
                        a billfold 

                        wet in my mouth, wrists bound by his belt,
                        I felt

                        like the boy in a briny night pool, he who found
                        the drowned

                        body, yet still somehow swam with an unknown joy.
                        That boy.

RandallMannThe poet seems shocked by his own reaction, the inappropriate, “unknown joy” that comes in place of the fear he knows he should feel. As in many of the poems in this book, form is cunningly bound to content, the careful control of the rhyme and the alternating length of the lines allowing for a sense of off-kilter command, an equilibrium on the point of giving way.

In his love of traditional form paired with decidedly untraditional subject matter, Mann recalls the great poet Thom Gunn, to whom he paid tribute in his second collection. (If you haven’t read Gunn’s The Man With Night Sweats, one of the finest books of poetry of recent decades and among the most powerful responses I know to the AIDS crisis, you should grab a copy right now.) But it’s to another gay poet, W.H. Auden, that he tips his hat in “Only You,” which transfers Auden’s marvelous “As I Walked Out One Evening”—rhyme and meter intact—to San Francisco:

                        As I skipped out this morning,
                        skipping down Castro Street,
                        the queens upon the asphalt
                        were racks of hanging meat.

Mann finds a kind of sexual wonderland in San Francisco, but what had seemed to promise freedom in the Florida of his childhood is soon enough revealed as another trap, what he calls in one poem “The Lion’s Mouth.” “I am so sick / of pretending to be me,” he writes in “Larkin Street,” exhausted by the erotic marketplace, and in “Civic Center” he offers a biting satire of certain shapes of modern love:

                        In bed, we only play together, because
                        this is the way we elude each other,
                        with the barback from Prague we’re thinking of adopting
                        by mail. We sometimes send our love.

Satire is one of Mann’s dominant modes, and he can wax cynical about both gay life and the literary world. But when the satire lifts what’s revealed (as in all good satirical writers) is serious, even moral feeling. In a book that lays claim to a huge range of tones, from high lyrical to queen-at-the-bar, repeatedly there occur lines that give voice to a finally tragic sense of the intrication of joy and pain. To quote again from “Only You,” Mann’s homage to Auden:                     

                        “The night is falling soon.
                        And love is never love
                        without a tub of ruin.”

Also mixing with this satire, making it richer and more complex than mere ridicule, is a sense of others’ suffering, a compassion nowhere more evident than in “September Elegies,” one of the book’s finest poems. Dedicated to four gay boys who committed suicide in a single month of 2010, the poem is a pantoum, an extremely challenging form of multiple repeating lines. As the details of the boys’ lives reoccur—ages, towns, last words—an arbitrary formal scheme takes on devastating emotional force.

Not least among the distinctions of Mann’s poems is that they aspire to one of the oldest ambitions of art: to fix the transient moments of our daily lives—in all their banality and beauty, their reverence and ridicule—in enduring forms. Mann is among our finest, most skillful poets of love and ruin. You should read this terrifically accomplished book.

Previous reviews...
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’: Book Review
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’
David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’

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


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