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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.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Neil Patrick Harris Says a Kiss from Burt Reynolds Helped Him Realize He Was Gay: VIDEO

Nph_reynolds

In his new Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris writes about coming to an understanding that he was gay, and reveals that one of his 'aha' moments was on the set of the 1989 TV show B.L. Stryker, when he received a surprise kiss from the show's star Burt Reynolds.

Writes Harris in the book:

As a joke at the end of one take, Burt leans over and kisses you square on the mouth...The crew thinks this is very funny, but it makes you uncomfortable. Uncomfortable and, it will ultimately turn out, gay. Burt Reynolds' kiss makes you gay.

Harris appeared in one episode of the short-lived series. And thankfully (or not)  for us, the entire episode is on YouTube.

Check it out, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Neil Patrick Harris Discusses Adventurous Autobiography, Offers Tips on Coming Out: VIDEO

Np_harris

Following his hit run on Broadway as Hedwig, Neil Patrick Harris is publishing a new "choose your own adventure" memoir and is making the rounds to the late and early shows to do publicity for it.

Harris spoke with Matt Lauer on Today this morning about the book, and also offered some tips on coming out, revealing that he calls his own coming out the 'Gay-tysburg Address'.

Harris also stopped in for a visit with David Letterman last week to talk about the book, his wedding, and his run on Broadway.

Watch, AFTER THE JUMP...

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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.


Pakistani Author Gets Hate Mail for Beautiful Children's Book About a Boy's Gay Uncle

Chacha

Eiynah Nice Mangos, a Toronto-based blogger and illustrator recently created a post called "My Chacha Is Gay," a story about a little boy in Pakistan and his gay uncle. The post received a great deal of attention and Eiynah began a crowdfunding campaign to turn it into a published book; she met her goal and Pakistan's first pro-gay children's book was born. "My Chacha Is Gay" has now been translated into seven different languages, though it is still unavailable in Pakistan.

Buzzfeed reports:

“The treatment of LGBTQ people in Pakistan is incredibly unjust, as is the treatment of most minorities, or anyone that doesn’t fit the expected mould,” Eiynah told BuzzFeed in an email. “The concept of LGBTQ rights does not exist in any large-scale mainstream way. People are isolated from family, friends and loved ones over things like this. It’s no way to live… Admittedly we are not as extreme as countries like Iran in our homophobia, but that doesn’t mean the situation is not horrendous..."

“I feel there are very few resources for children in our country that are not painted with a religious brush. When I see the state Pakistan’s in, I feel like perhaps we need to start on teaching social acceptance and tolerance at a younger age. I don’t think majority of us see the urgency of doing that. If we did, things might be different,” she said.

Eiynah did not expect the book to go over smoothly in her home country, but she was shocked by the amount of vehement hatred directed at her and the fictional characters she created.

“Of course I knew that Pakistani culture/society was homophobic but since this project the extent of that homophobia has shocked me. The kinds of hate mail I get – calling for the death of Chacha, equating my book with Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”. People have literally told me I am worthy of death because I am an enemy of “god” because of this book.”

Read the simple and beautiful book at Buzzfeed, and order a copy of your own at the book's website.

Photo via nicemangos.blogspot.ca.


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