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Helen Humphreys’ ‘The Evening Chorus’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

In the Lambda Award-winning Humphreys’ luminous new book, the Second World War serves as a grand backdrop for the intimate dramas of three interconnected lives. But the war has surprising effects in this lyrical and deeply compassionate novel: for all its tragedy, it also offers unimagined opportunity, even freedom, which Humphreys’ characters will later remember with longing.

EveningchorusIn the book’s first pages, James Hunter, a young pilot shot down on his first mission, parachutes into the English Channel, where he’s quickly found by a German boat and taken prisoner. As in Tatamkhulu Afrika’s powerful Bitter Eden, the indignities and deprivations of the prison camp—cold, hunger, boredom—are rendered with sometimes startling vividness.

The men are afflicted with lice, and one day James finds a man naked in their freezing bunkhouse, weeping and unable to bear putting his infested clothes back on. “With the same precision that would have been used to sew that jacket, [James] holds each seam over the flame, moving along the stitch just before the fabric catches fire. The swollen bodies of the lice make a small pop as they burst their cargo of blood above the candle.”

More difficult to defend against is the unpredictable, brutal violence the men suffer at the hands of the guards—violence that’s all the more harrowing for being leavened by equally unpredictable gestures of humanity. One of the moving aspects of these scenes is that Humphreys forces us to see all of the men in this world—most of them boys, really—as imprisoned, thrust from lives as bakers or teachers into their roles as prisoners or guards, in neither case by their own will.

While many of his fellow prisoners attempt hopeless escapes, James takes refuge from the boredom and misery of the camp by keeping meticulous notes on the behavior of a family of birds nesting just outside the camp’s perimeter. (In a note, Humphreys says that this detail is based on the real-life John Buxton, who published a book of his prison-camp observations after the war.)

James finds in this pursuit both solace from the camp and a passion that will continue after the war—a passion he was only able to discover through captivity. “Back in that other life,” Humphreys writes, "which seemed to fade more with each passing day, he didn’t have much time to watch the world. He was too busy moving through it.”

James has left behind a young wife in England, and she too finds a kind of paradoxical happiness among the misery of the war. Rose works as a bomb warden, making nightly rounds to ensure that her neighbors have fully drawn their blackout curtains. Her days are aimless and solitary, a dog her only company. “The abandonment of routine is a response to loneliness, she thinks. But it is also far less unpleasant than one would think to live in this new unstructured way.”

This idyll is interrupted when James’s sister, Enid, joins Rose in her country cottage after Enid’s London apartment is bombed. At first, Enid is distressed to find herself in the country, where “there is nothing but vegetation and few brainless hens.”

Helen-HumphreysBut then she starts to explore, beginning a kind of survey of the countryside she at first dismissed. Like her brother, Enid finds in the beauties of nature something more than solace, a value that goes beyond her own suffering:

“Each little flower has a history and cultural references, is a superstition or cure for something. Everything is its own world, and if Enid stays there, in these worlds, she won’t have to break the surface of the large, terrifying world she actually lives in.”

Humphreys’ novel follows these characters over a decade, and we see how the tensions and revelations of the weeks Enid and Rose spend together will affect the large patterns of their lives. “It’s so hard to get life right,” Enid thinks years later. “All the small balances are impossible to strike most of the time. And then there are the larger choices. It’s hopeless.”

And yet this is finally a very hopeful book, as full of joy and small redemptions as it is of grief. This is the first of Humphreys’ novels I’ve read, and I feel at once baffled to have taken so long to discover her work and grateful to have all of her previous novels ahead of me. Quietly profound and gorgeously written, The Evening Chorus is among the most moving new novels I’ve read in years.

Previous reviews...
Kim Fu’s ‘For Today I Am A Boy’
Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper
Shelly Oria’s ‘New York 1, Tel Aviv 0’
Colm Tóibín’s ‘Nora Webster’

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 Farrar, Straus and Giroux in early 2016. 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.


Latina Supermodel Patricia Velasquez Comes Out in New Memoir: 'I Want to At Least Start a Dialogue' - VIDEO

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VelaThe world’s first Latina supermodel Patricia Velasquez has come out as a lesbian in her new memoir Straight Walk, reports the New York Post.

In the book, Velasquez says she felt compelled to come out because of anti-gay prejudice in the Latin community.

She describes her time in the South American beauty pageant system, her rise to fame - and how her life changed when she met Sandra Bernhard backstage at a fashion show.

The supermodel explains that she felt an instant connection with Bernhard, with whom she was “was deeply in love...in a way I’d never experienced before.”

Velasquez doesn’t go into details about the relationship but writes that the “cried for two years over Sandra” when the relationship came to an end.

Watch backstage interviews with Velasquez and Bernhard from 1994, with Bernhard waxing lyrical about the model, AFTER THE JUMP...

 

Continue reading "Latina Supermodel Patricia Velasquez Comes Out in New Memoir: 'I Want to At Least Start a Dialogue' - VIDEO" »


Tribute To Gay Chilean Writer Pedro Lemebel Who Died Last Friday

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The Chilean LGBT community lost an icon last Friday with the death of Pedro Lemebel. 

A writer, activist, and provocateur, Lemebel was referred to as "a fighter for social justice and defender of freedom,” by the president of Chile herself, Michelle Bachelet. Our very own Garth Greenwell has written a tribute in The New Yorker to the late writer, describing the accomplishments of a man that many of us may have never known about:

Lemebel defined himself against establishments of all kinds: against Pinochet’s military dictatorship, but also against the Marxist resistance that condemned homosexuality as a bourgeois vice; against the neoliberal consensus behind Chile’s “economic miracle,” but also against the L.G.B.T. activists who Lemebel believed were making commodities of queer suffering and queer lives.

A crowd of hundreds gathered for his funeral in Santiago last Saturday. He died of laryngeal cancer. 

Few of Lemebel's works have been translated into English, but if you would like to experience the author's works his 2001 novel My Tender Matador is one of those that made it stateside and can be found on iBooks, Amazon, and Google Play for about $8-10.

Read Greenwell's tribute here


New York Times Defends Firing Of Anti-gay Atlanta Fire Chief: VIDEO

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The New York Times has defended the decision of Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed (above) to fire Kelvin Cochran (below right), the anti-gay Atlanta fire chief who self-published a book he wrote titled Who Told You That You Were Naked?

In the book, Cochran labels homosexuality a "sexual perversion" and compares homosexuality to bestiality and pederasty.

6a00d8341c730253ef01b7c72fdc93970b-250wiThe newspaper argues that Reed “did the right thing and dismissed Mr. Cochran for what he called poor judgment: specifically, for failing to get approval for the book’s publication, for commenting publicly on his suspension after being told not to, and for exposing the city to possible discrimination lawsuits.”

“Mr. Cochran said he was fired ‘for no reason other than my Christian faith.’ But he and his sudden coterie of supporters have it backward. This case is not about free speech or religious freedom. It is, as Mr. Reed said at a news conference, about ‘making sure that we have an environment in government where everyone, no matter who they love, can come to work from 8 to 5:30 and do their job and then go home without fear of being discriminated against."

The Times argues that if Cochran “were an adherent of a religion that avowed the inferiority of white people, and that he distributed literature to that effect...he would not have lasted another day in a job that requires him to manage and protect the well-being of a large and diverse work force.”

“It should not matter that the investigation found no evidence that Mr. Cochran had mistreated gays or lesbians. His position as a high-level public servant makes his remarks especially problematic, and requires that he be held to a different standard.

“The First Amendment already protects religious freedom. Nobody can tell Mr. Cochran what he can or cannot believe. If he wants to work as a public official, however, he may not foist his religious views on other city employees who have the right to a boss who does not speak of them as second-class citizens.”

Watch a January 6th press conference in which Reed announces his decision, AFTER THE JUMP...

Update: NOM's Brian Brown isn't happy with the paper's position on the matter, writing:

But the biggest and most dangerous lie the New York Times put forward is that Christians (and those of other faiths) who actually have the temerity to speak up on their beliefs (you know, don’t hide their light under a bushel) on marriage and sexuality, should be fired.

Yes, the New York Times actually states that employees "have the right to a boss who does not speak of them as second class citizens." When the Times says that we are speaking of employees as second class citizens, it lies again—of course we don't believe that—we just know that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. And even though the Times acknowledged that there is absolutely no evidence that Mr. Cochran discriminated against gays or lesbians, it still argues that he should be fired because he had the temerity to publicly acknowledge his beliefs in this book.

The Times has just declared war on Christians and members of other faith communities that serve in government position. It is open season, according to the New York Times, to make sure that we lose our jobs. The new authoritarians now state openly that we can have our beliefs—we simply can’t talk about them. And then they are going to actually have the gall to say that "this is not about free speech or religious freedom."

Continue reading "New York Times Defends Firing Of Anti-gay Atlanta Fire Chief: VIDEO" »


Kim Fu's ‘For Today I Am A Boy’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Early in this uncommonly moving debut novel—the last book I read in 2014, and one of the best—the young narrator, Peter Huang, goes to the movies with his adored older sister Adele. The theater plays old movies, and they watch Sabrina, the classic film starring Audrey Hepburn. Sitting with his beautiful sister, heartbroken that in a few weeks Adele will leave for college, Peter sees in Hepburn an impossible ideal, an embodiment of the kind of woman he feels sure he was meant to be.

FuBut everything in Peter’s life seems designed to keep him from anything like an authentic self. The child of Chinese immigrants in a small Canadian town, Peter is the only boy in a family of four children, the answer to his father’s prayers. Peter’s father is in some ways desperate to assimilate—he refuses to speak Cantonese and forbids his wife from cooking their native cuisine—but he has deeply traditional ideas about gender and the duties of children. He gives Peter the Chinese name Juan Chaun, “powerful king,” and expects him to act accordingly.

But Peter can’t be the son his father wants, and he lives for stolen moments when he can imagine himself into a different life. Alone in the afternoons after school, he puts on his mother’s apron and cleans the house, then cooks a meal his sister will take credit for. When his father discovers that his son has been doing “women’s work,” his response is immediate and cruel.

Peter does find allies in his small town, people he can begin to share his secrets with, but it isn’t until he moves to Montreal as a young man that he has his first glimpses of queer life. And even here he can’t let himself make use of his new freedom. Years after he leaves home, even after his father’s death, Peter is still ruled by his parents’ expectations. He feels not just shame at being trans, but absolute certainty that anything like a full life is impossible.

It’s not surprising, then, that Peter’s first sexual experiences are bound up with violence. In one of the book’s most powerful sequences, he enters into an abusive relationship with a much older woman, who stages scenes of sexual sadism and racist humiliation. In a devastating scene, this woman dresses Peter as a woman and then chokes him in front of a mirror, so that “I could watch my own blissful face white out slowly, glowing like an angel’s, until I passed out.”

Kim FuStructured in short, intense fragments and poetic scenes, Kim Fu’s novel follows Peter’s life over three decades, and one of its strengths is that Peter’s coming of age doesn’t fit into any easy narrative of liberation. Even when he does fall in with a group of young people who seem entirely comfortable with their queer identities, with rich lives and loving relationships, Peter’s response, at least at first, is to feel less relieved than enraged. 

“Who were these kids?” Peter asks himself. “What right had they to be born into a world where they were taught to look endlessly into themselves…To ask themselves, and not be told, whether they were boys or girls?”

The novel doesn’t offer any easy answers to Peter’s questions, or to other questions he asks about family and gender and sex. It certainly resists any sense that there are ready-made answers to those questions, or that they can be resolved in anything other than individual, divergent, and partial ways.

In fact, the novel suggests, Peter’s best chance at happiness may not be in the urban queer community Montreal offers, but instead where he began, within his difficult, fractured family, and especially in his relationships with his three sisters, each of them desperate for a wholeness their lives seem to refuse them.

For Today I Am a Boy is an extraordinarily accomplished first novel, and Fu is a thrilling new voice. She’s at once compassionate toward her characters and uncompromising in her refusal of the usual novelistic resolutions of questions that remain intractable in lived experience. Lyrical, sometimes brutal, always beautiful, this is a brilliant book. 

Previous reviews...
Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper
Shelly Oria’s ‘New York 1, Tel Aviv 0’
Colm Tóibín’s ‘Nora Webster’
Saeed Jones’s ‘Prelude to Bruise’
 
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in September 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.


HarperCollins Refuses To Publish Book Until Author Renounces Gay Daughter

Author Dawn Bennett has been told by HarperCollins Christian Publishing that she will have to condemn her daughter’s sexual orientation before her book can be published, reports Human Rights Campaign.

BXLSvElftuSRpRI-580x326-noPadBennett’s book centers on her story as a Christian mother supporting her lesbian daughter and “the hurt and harm that my daughter and our family has experienced at the hands of certain biblical interpretation.”

In an email from the publisher’s content evaluation department - managed by HarperCollins subsidiary Thomas Nelson publishing group, which considers homosexuality to be sinful behavior - Bennett was told any mention of “homosexual behavior” would have to be “presented as a sin”.

The email also insisted “the person who committed the act is remorseful and has or currently is taking steps to change their lifestyle.”

Bennett has attacked the implication that homosexuality is "sinful behavior that can and should be changed" and highlights the harmful effects of so-called "ex-gay" therapy, a practise that was recently banned in Washington, D.C.

Bennett says the publisher, which has many LGBT titles in its catalogue, "shouldn’t be able to take our money with one hand and then shame us with the other."

Bennett has started a petition on Change.org to make customers aware of the publisher’s actions, especially where it “promotes causing others harm.”

No stranger to controversy, the Thomas Nelson subsidiary was sued back in 2008 by a man who said that versions of their Bibles which call homosexuality a sin violated his consitutional rights. HarperCollins Christian Publishing is also marketing and promoting a number of Christian-themed products from the Duck Dynasty family.

UPDATE: Towleroad has receieved the following message from HarperCollins in response to our post:

As soon as we learned of Ms. Bennett's petition we looked into the situation and determined that there was a third-party subjective application and misinterpretation of the editorial guidelines. It was not an accurate reflection on the editorial standards of Thomas Nelson, or any other publishing group within HarperCollins. We issued an apology to Ms. Bennett immediately, refunded her money and offered for her to continue the publishing process with WestBow. We are taking the appropriate steps to ensure that this does not happen again. We are sincerely sorry to her and her family for any harm, pain, or embarrassment that this may have caused.


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