LGBTQ

The Night Ocean | Book Review

30901609The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge is the last novel I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards Nominees. I think I accidentally saved the best for last because this was my favourite out of the bunch. What La Farge did with this work is really impressive because he had to work with one of the most controversial figures in Science Fiction history and somehow he examines possibilities without glorifying any of the negatives in H.P. Lovecraft. Only three years ago the figure of Lovecraft was removed by the Locus Fantasy Awards so it’s a difficult topic to work with so shortly after. Reading this novel was like peeling layers and layers on a dark flower and finding something new each time. Like a cubist artist, La Farge holds H.P. Lovecraft and the persona of this mysterious figure, but looks at it from every possible angle, considering each perspective. For one, this story isn’t really about H.P Lovecraft, it’s about a woman who is in love with a man who was passionate about a particular aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s life. This hierarchy of perspectives creates a distance between all that one may find problematic with Lovecraft. Each character being slightly flawed and a little unreliable still preserves the mystery. Allow me to explain a little of the plot and I will try to be less cryptic. The story follows Marina who is herself a psychiatrist. Her husband Charlie was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons and one day simply vanished. The last thing we know is that he was by the edge of the lake. In trying to find out more about her husband Marina finds that Charlie was doing passionate research work on H.P. Lovecraft, in particular focusing on his sexuality, and if maybe he might have had a homosexual relationship with a young fan by the name of Robert Barlow. His lead was finding a Lovecraft diary also known in this novel as The Erotonomicon (playing on the Necronomicon). It was kind of interesting to consider that at the time H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘clues’ or proof trail of being homosexual might have been hidden by publishers or friends to ‘preserve’ his integrity whilst the racist and xenophobic parts of his biography were unashamedly left in, whereas today it would be exactly the reverse. I am a big fan of acknowledging that no one is good or bad, but a dynamic character with flaws and qualities alike and that the path to rehabilitation and education can help anyone no matter what they said or did in the past. Lovecraft did a lot of good for fantasy and sparked a series of subgenres. He was very unhappy and died in extreme poverty. I have always tried to keep that in mind, and La Farge just reminded me how interesting Lovecraft was and it’s making me want to go read the Necronomicon again.

Because the main narrator is involved in a mystery trying to find out more about her own husband, because Charlie himself is psychologically unstable (which automatically makes him an unreliable narrator), and because the ‘findings’ about Lovecraft have been filtered, hidden, and ‘rumoured’ the whole novel preserves an overall tone of suspense and eerie mystery. Even Charlie’s disappearance is something straight out of a Cthulhu story. No one is one hundred percent reliable, and no one has a definite answer on Lovecraft, which leaves the reader of The Night Ocean alone, left to come up with answers by connecting the dots. Also, Marina trying to understand Charlie, and him explaining Lovecraft to her in flashbacks/memories, and her learning more about him as we go along, we are introduced to bits of biography about Lovecraft, including the parts which make him a controversial figure. Like I said, this novel was very dynamic and it is presented in such a way that reminds me of a cubist painting. It is no small feat, and La Farge has succeeded immensely (in my humble opinion). This was a very difficult task and his writing is absolutely amazing. The way the story is told, the diverse cast of characters, the new parts of Lovecraft’s life to be explored, the incorporation of a female narrator to guide the story forward are just a few aspects of what makes this story so good. I also have to slip in that I was hooked on Charlie the moment he said he procrastinated by watching Lost…something I’m obsessed with. There goes my bias.

Definitely read this book if you love H.P. Lovecraft, mystery, science fiction, the macabre, steampunkish speculative fiction, and gothic atmospheres/settings. I mean…this is a Shirley Jackson Award nominee…so you already know.

Femme Confidential | Book Review

34713199Given the recent Toronto attack which has shaken this city to its core, particularly the way it was directed with a passionate hatred towards women, this book has been a source of comfort to me over the last few days. Reading articles claiming “Toronto has lost its innocence” due to a “men’s-rights culture warrior channeling a cult of toxic misogyny” made it particularly difficult to enjoy the place I call home without the constant sense of uneasiness and violation. I needed to read a book where all the characters are women and they are sexually free within their own spaces, in the city of Toronto. This has been (for me) one of those rare moments of right book at the right time. In addition to its content, the author’s dry humour and deadpan writing style gives this narrative a ‘matter-of fact’ tone, which is much needed given the plot and characters.

The narrative follows Liberty, who has dropped out of university, and hitched a ride to Toronto back in the ’90s. In Toronto, and in her early 20s she falls for Veronika who is an unreliable, and unpredictable character. The reader gets a sense that Liberty wants both passion and stability in her life. Liberty wants safety, and comfort, but Veronika’s style puts her constantly on the edge. Liberty’s ambitions aside from her romantic involvements become apparent as she continues her studies and becomes a law librarian working for a very important Toronto firm. Her personal life is laid bare in this novel, but we are reminded that on a daily basis, Liberty is a contributing member of society completing important work. While Veronika distances herself from Liberty, and things never really work out, life keeps throwing them opportunities to meet again and again. The relationship between them is quite familiar, Liberty sees Veronika as a goddess, and muse, while Veronika could not care less. Even when Veronika is hurtful, Liberty narrates:

“She was like Wonder Woman, lifting up bulletproof bracelets to a bolt of humiliation and cooly zapping it back…there was no way I could have been as cool as Veronika, who didn’t seem to get hurt”

The third main character introduced is David, who transitions to Dana. Throughout the course of the novel the reader gets an insight to the difficulties a trans-gendered person encounters even during small meaningless daily activities like joining a recreational basketball team.

There are many moments when Liberty vocalizes what sex means to her, despite what the action itself might look like from the outside (ranging from somewhat rough, BDSM-like, or even at times passionless). Liberty experiences an array of rejections that are really painful to read. Although you see her brushing them aside, as a reader, you can feel the sting. After sleeping with a woman who was extremely hurtful and told Liberty that sex with her had been ‘terrible,’ Liberty doesn’t retort in a hurtful manner, rather she says:

“Listen. Sex for me is not about coming. It’s not about one particular act. It’s about having fun and taking care of each other’s needs”

This novel looks at the three women in Toronto in the ’90s, with a brief flashback to the early ’80s set in Nova Scotia, all the way to 2014 where the novel begins, as Liberty accidentally bumps into Veronika’s step-daughter. This ‘bump’ to me is an overarching theme over the novel. You get a sense that Liberty has strange feelings towards young people today and not only to how casually they experience things which were a struggle for her, but also towards the demands they make. For instance, having read about all these flesh and bone experiences of the past, Liberty has a reaction to seeing a young person on Tinder (or as she calls it: ‘Grindr for straight people’):

“With quick finger swipes, she rejected three face shots of young men and displayed a photo gallery of boys and girls whom she hadn’t rejected. All the cool urban high school kids were genderqueer these days—we can date anyone and we don’t care about gender!…when I was a teenager, the idea of being a dyke had scared the hell out of me.”

And just as she begins with this shock of how young people reject so easily with a single swipe and not being comforted by the awkwardness of doing it in person, or being rejected in person, all tied together with Liberty’s constant desire for safety and stability in her life, she concludes the novel with:

“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it was what I’d grown up with, was different from the current demands for safe spaces. Demands I wasn’t entirely comfortable with because who defined safe and when did it rub up against freedom? I understood wanting a safe space—any person who has been treated like shit would….when [Beth] stroked the center of my back, as she was right now, I felt utterly safe, precious, protected.’

What I loved most about this novel were the scenes of Toronto, and Liberty Village (name of Toronto neighbourhood) from the ’90s’ and early ‘00s. Descriptions of familiar streets, and familiar places made this novel particularly comforting. There is a lot of character development and growth while the city simultaneously changes with them. The Toronto Liberty runs to in the ‘90s is not the same Toronto she is in today. There is a mirroring in how Liberty enters the city unsure and fragile while the city itself feels defined, and near the end, Liberty knows who she is and what she wants, while the city is in a fragile state. Perhaps this novel can be summarized as “Life, and Liberty’s pursuit of happiness.”

This novel is written by Hamilton-based Nairne Holtz who is a law librarian in Toronto. She has written several other fictional works, and completed an annotated bibliography of Canadian Lesbian Literature. Information on all these works can be found at Holtz’s website. She has been shortlisted for Quebec’s McAuslan Prize, won the Alice B. Award for Debut Lesbian Fiction, and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. She is almost always illustrated or photographed holding a dog, and she volunteers a lot of her free time at the Gay and Lesbian Archives.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies | Review

“Maybe there were no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.”

“I could number more sexual partners in my history than anyone I knew but the difference between love and sex could be summed up for me in eight words: I loved Julian; I had sex with strangers.”

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Ardent once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face

33253215I don’t even know where to begin with this book. I initially took it out from the library, while following along in the text with the audiobook read by Stephen Hogan. About 90 pages in, I knew I had to buy my own copy, and when I was done I bought two for my friends. First of all, hats off to Hogan for being able to read each character in a different voice, I don’t know how he did it, but it was an exceptional audiobook.

The novel’s true life-force and heart however is John Boyne. His prose is unmatchable. With this novel Boyne went to the top of my list as a contemporary author and I am currently acquiring the backlist.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a bildungsroman following Cyril Avery. His birth-mother, Catherine Goggin, is ‘a fallen woman’ who cannot provide a life for him and puts him up for adoption. He is taken in by Maude and Charles Avery who remind Cyril that he’s not “a real Avery” on a daily basis. Cyril knows early on that he is not interested in women like the other boys in his immediate circle of friends, and falls deeply in love with his best friend, and roommate, Julian Woodbead. Boyne highlights the dominance of homophobia in Dublin at the time, and the hypocrisy of the Catholic church in many respects. The same priest who had violently exiled Cyril’s birth mother had fathered children to several women—that’s just one example among many. The novel follows Cyril through Amsterdam, all the way to New York during the AIDS epidemic, and then back to Ireland. The difficulties of coming out, the struggle of living a lie, and the violence and hatred directed at the LGBT community historically are shown with such dexterity in this narrative. It truly is an education, and simultaneously a heartwarming reminder of how far we’ve come. The story is told in first person by Cyril, so readers know from the very beginning that he will one day be reunited with his birth mother, and we get a chance to know his feelings, while seeing his actions often contradict them (though not by choice). I was taken aback by the way in which Boyne crafted Cyril to come across as a quiet person even though he was ‘talking’ the whole time. The dominant theme of this novel is growth, and the difficulties of being forced to lie—those lies creating pain to oneself and other innocent bystanders. It also demonstrates how, if we don’t make progress and meaningful social change, history will continue to repeat itself generation after generation.

Synopsis aside, this novel is very much character-driven. There are three incredible women in this novel. First we have Catherine Goggin, who is strong, resourceful, and self-sufficient considering all the hardships that life has thrown at her. Then, there is Maude Avery who, to me at least, reads like she is Gertrude Stein—without the freedom to be Gertrude Stein. She is constantly writing novels, shies away from fame, cares very little for her husband, and has literary circles of bohemian artists. Lastly, there is Alice Woodbead—Julian’s sister. She is by far my favourite character. Her traumas speak to all my anxieties. She is smart, has a Ph.D. in literature, studies Maude Avery exclusively (writing her biography), and she’s an Ally, or at least more understanding than others to the LGBT struggle. Cyril feels an emotional and temperamental connection to her, and as a reader, so did I. She completely charmed me and got my attention when she says to Cyril:

“I sometimes feel as if I wasn’t supposed to live among people at all. As if I would be happier on a little island somewhere, all alone with my books and some writing material for company. I could grow my own food and never have to speak to a soul.”

The novel is, of course, mostly focused on Cyril. There are many characters that come and go in his life, and the novel relies heavily on coincidence meetings, and extremely dangerous events happening at random times. Characters make “cameo” appearances creating a strong sense of dramatic irony. There are a few events however where I felt that maybe the timing was just too convenient. I’ve seen coincidences happen many times, but there are two deaths that were kind of unexplained, as if by fate’s design when the character conveniently needed it most. Two other ‘deaths’ afterwards are quite rushed, and it feels as if the author needs to get rid of them somehow to focus on Cyril’s growth as an individual instead, and he does so in a very Shakespearean way (Polonius comes to mind). Aside from that, this novel is absolute perfection and I can’t give it anything less than five perfect stars.

boyneI also love the way Boyne guides you safely out of the novel in the epilogue, and the story comes full perfect circle, leaving no question unanswered. None. None of my questions were left unanswered, and the reader gets closure with every single character and how their life turns out. It’s absolutely wonderful, which is something you need considering the heavy topics discussed. The chapters are each seven years apart which makes things really quite exciting because we get to experience only the interesting bits.

Lastly, there is Boyne’s masterful use of humour. Though the humour is much stronger in the Dublin parts, there are some lines that made me laugh out loud. Cyril is so naïve and innocent that some of his limited understanding of women, or just life, made me laugh out loud. A small example of that for instance is when one of the women at his work refers to her menstrual cycle as “aunt Jemima” coming for a visit and Cyril narrates: I don’t know who this aunt was, or where she lived, but she came to Dublin every month and stayed for a few days.

Again…. there are no words. Just a perfect book. Absolutely loved it from beginning to end. Character development is perfect, plot is very exciting, and the humour is spot on, while dealing with some of the most difficult topics, and the language is absolute perfection.

This novel came strongly recommended by James Chatham whose Booktube channel I follow quite passionately. Thank you very much James.

No Refuge but Writing | Exhibition

IMG_20180218_122302For the long weekend, I took a brief trip to NYC and explored several bookstores and the exhibition at the Morgan Library: Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, hosted in the Engelhard Gallery. Only a quick glimpse demonstrated what a huge collaboration this exhibition was. Manuscripts were brought from the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University, New York Public Library, Harvard, and many others, with the collaboration of many librarians and curators. The exhibition was made possible by generous donors, and it is exemplary work by the librarians and curators at the Morgan Library. Walking through the exhibition I felt absolutely inspired! Inspired to write, to learn, to read, to live! The way the exhibit was set up, the information provided, the research done, all was put together so well that—in my mind at least— it brought Tennessee Williams back to life.

The way my high school English courses were set up, and coincided with my theater classes, I accidentally had to read A Streetcar Named Desire about five times—not only read it, but study it, memorize it, and write several essays on it, as well as performing parts of it on stage. In undergrad I studied The Glass Menagerie, and this put me on a bit of a Williams crusade. His tragic female characters who cannot let go of an idealized past, his confrontational men who are mere bullies incapable of understanding the delicate nature of their sexuality, in addition to the intensity of the plot—are absolutely unforgettable.

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Battle of Angels Playbill

The way the exhibition is set up we get glimpses into Williams’s life in chronological order. Artefacts include one of his many typewriters, keys he collected from hotels, manuscripts and first drafts of his plays, elaborate plans for some of his character development, as well some of his well-deserved awards. Because Williams wrote on the cusp of the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are many playbills from Broadway, images of Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Marlon Brando, and posters/still images of these great actors playing a role in one of his many plays.

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Self-Portrait, Oil Painting

Tennessee Williams’s inner life, however, was most intriguing to me. On display was a letter Williams sent to his grandfather explaining how anxious he was for receiving a grant from the Rockefeller fellowship, the ways in which he based Belle Reve (the location from which Blanche arrives—the idealized past) on a poem he wrote many years prior, the way he dissects Blanche’s character and psyche before writing her into dialogue, and his many oil paintings. This was new information to me—I had no idea Williams painted—in a style I very much admire. His painting style resembles a cross between Cezanne and Van Gogh—a form of expressionism/impressionism but with a flat brush. I remember a moment from Streetcar where he went through a lot of trouble to outline the setting by means of a painting:

“There is a picture of Van Gogh’s of a billiard-parlor at night. The kitchen now suggests that sort of lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum. Over the yellow linoleum of the kitchen table hangs and electric bulb with a vivid green glass shade. The poker players—Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo—wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check, a light green, and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors.” (Streetcar Named Desire)

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Typewritten draft for Streetcar

According to one of the information panels next to his drafts of Streetcar, Williams got the idea for the play when living in New Orleans with his new lover Pancho Rodriguez where he famously wrote:

“’I was and still am Blanche…[although] God knows I have a Stanley in me, too,’” drew on their tumultuous relationship for the play. This he wove together with elements from earlier poems, shorter plays, and character studies to draft and redraft The Poker Night, the immediate precursor to A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Clearly, he drew a lot from Van Gogh’s art and allowed it to guide the poker night scene which became the heart and beginning of his most famous play.

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His typewriter (one of them)

Lastly, and what I found most interesting, was the way Tennessee Williams regarded writing as a kind of madness. In a diary where he noted anxieties about his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he feared was a failure, he wrote:

“I love writing too much, and to love anything too much is to feel a terror of loss: it’s a kind of madness”

Then, below the typewriter on display The Morgan Library wrote:

“Two of Williams’s most important possessions were his copy of Hart Crane’s Poems (also on view) and his typewriter. As a young man, he would write through the night, seeming to subsist on strong black coffee and creative expression alone. Even at his poorest, when his typewriter was seized by his landlady, he borrowed one. When he pawned the borrowed typewriter, he found another and promptly spent 15 cents of his last $2.00 on paper. ‘I must be mad,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘It’s all a little too much, too much.’”

It was so interesting to see it all laid out and to get so close to his handwriting, and most prized possessions. The exhibition will be on at the Morgan Library until May 13, 2018, so if at any point you find yourself in New York, try to see it if you can. If not, the exhibition has been put together in a library catalog titled Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, which is available for purchase online.

 

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Note: all pictures above were taken by me (no flash) at the Morgan Library, and are the property of the sources listed in the opening paragraph. According to their website: “Images may be printed out for study, or downloaded for presentations, dissertations, or non-commercial websites or blogs.”