Archive for April, 2013

deflowered my life in Pansy Division – jon ginoli

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)Defl

If you are interested in gay history, then this book is a must, even if you aren’t into rock music, because Pansy Division was, is, a phenomenon. They get a mention, though their music didn’t get played, in the iconic ‘Queer as Folk’.

Like many gay men, the author was a loner growing up in small town at a time when gender bending was in fashion but there were no but no out groups – so he ended up founding one. Like many, the only role models he saw were camp and he wasn’t like any of them. So, he thought, it must be a passing phase. Indeed, he didn’t have his first sexual encounter until the age of 21.

He likens high school graduation as leading to ‘the slaughter house that is adulthood’ and doesn’t want to attend his graduation ceremony. His taste for ‘outward signs’ is similar to the protestations of religious leaders such as Guru Nanak who didn’t want initiation.

Like so many teenagers who dream of being pop stars, and there are a few who make it. The author had his dream and had to risk a job he liked in order to make it. He succeeded. Risk is the name of the game: one member of the band wanted a more reliable income after he turned age forty.

Pansy Division is an important aspect of gay culture. With so many clubs of the time playing disco, especially high energy, it seemed like it was compulsory. This group offered something different.

There is also distaste for the ubiquitous Oasis with their ‘wholesale theft of riffs and melodies.’

Other stereotypes are busted too, such as guys who refuse to kiss.

There is a good account of the group’s search for a drummer and for someone actually wanting to be asked and having the guts to say so. This drummer is a proper trouper, having played the drums when injured after a van door trapped his hand.

It never ceases to surprise me how America can be less tolerant that the UK. That conservative student groups can manage to banish a gay group as recently as 1998.

Two annoyances: the book is repetitive in places, for example when we are told twice within two pages of each other than the group’s agent thought their tours were too long rather than promoting them. Also the irritating misspelling of the place name ‘Ghent’ as ‘Gent’.

I had to look up ‘cockamamie’. It sounds rude to me but is an American slang term for something ridiculous, incredible or implausible. It is believed to be a close relative of decal, a design prepared on special paper for transfer to another surface. The origin of both cockamamie and decal is the French décalcomanie, which was created in the early 1860s to refer to the craze for decorating objects with transfers

Do you know what ‘Alpine skiing’ refers to? (Clue: From the song by Pansy Division.”it takes 3 guys to do it right, (they’re gay, so could be 1 girl & 2 guys) 1 on the left and 1 on the right. ..just get your hands around two poles, move ’em up and down in a steady motion”

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Salvation Army Abdellah Taïa

Many books have been written about the gay underworld of Morocco but it isSA refreshing to read a book by a Moroccan. This is a beautiful, crisp book which starts with a detailed description of the author’s childhood in a big family living in one room (the other two are for the men of the house, his father and elder brother.)

Taïa knew he was different from a very early age. So did his family. His (much) elder brother is typical of those young men who will happily play around until they have an arranged marriage and settle down. Indeed the elder brother seems to be representative of some men Taïa met, loved and lost in later life.

He recalls the night a group of men came to his family home — three rooms for 11 people — and shouted at the windows: ‘Abdellah, come here, we want to fuck you.’ He was 11 going on 12 and lay in bed alongside his sisters and his mother, listening to the mob outside. ‘Everyone heard ‘not only my family but the whole neighborhood,’ he says. ‘What I saw clearly was that this is how society functions and that no one can protect you, not even your parents. That’s when I realized I had to hide who I am.’

Taïa always knew he was gay, but it took time to realize how it might be used against him. A young man in his neighborhood, Naim — ‘a very beautiful name that means, after a manner, soft’ — served as a harbinger of his own likely fate. In a culture where men and women are strictly separated, Naim was a vessel — and a victim — for young men in search of a substitute. ‘They made him just a sexual thing, someone that the frustrated Moroccan man can have sex with,’ says Taïa. ‘They killed him, in their way — they destroyed him…… If you go to Taïa’s impoverished neighborhood in the Moroccan port of Sal’ you may or may not find Naim, but you will find someone like him. ‘There is always one person, this man/boy, singled out,’ says Taïa. ‘Let’s just say I understood that I had to save myself from this fate, that I was the next generation after that guy.’

However, Taïa insists that this is not a gay book. Rather, it is a book which happens to be written by a gay man. Straight authors write about marriage but we don’t talk about a ‘straight book’. In an interview, he said, ‘I never hide. I never put that aspect of my personality aside. I know so many gay intellectuals or writers who say, “I am not going to talk about homosexuality because it doesn’t interest people.” But for me this makes no sense. It would be like a heterosexual who doesn’t present himself as a heterosexual….’Even now people tell me I should change the subject, that I’ll be ghettoized as a gay writer, but do we give this advice to heterosexual writers? Please stop writing about your heterosexuality? Homosexuality is part of me, but it’s not the only thing I write about. The problem is the way these people read my work. Their problem is that my sexuality is all they see.’

His credo, as he said in the interview, is ‘I believe that books help us to live. When you read a book or a poem it connects you to something new inside of you or it confirms some premonition you’ve had. Using my books as a cultural instrument in the fight for freedom, for individuality, is something I’m very happy to do. Since I come from a world where individuality doesn’t exist, where homosexuality is still considered a crime, where you don’t completely own your body, and where you can’t speak freely, it’s the least I can do.’

Asked whether this book is memoir or fiction, he said,I don’t believe that my work is autobiographical or memoir, though it has been described like that. I write novels, texts. They are not expressions of my social self, they are expressions of something else. I don’t know what label we should put on them. Though the experiences and scenes are coming from my life, when I start to write there are so many things that come out and put themselves into the text. I have no idea about those things five minutes before I start writing. The fictionalized always comes out and puts itself into my writing. But I don’t agree with the definition of fiction. Is it something that has nothing to do with us, that is made up? I don’t believe in that. As human beings, in order to make our lives acceptable and not too sad, we imagine things. We do it all the time. How would you label that? Fiction? Not for me. What I invent, what I imagine, is part of something.’

There is an innocence about the author, who has a (too?) trusting nature. He contrasts his warm home world with the coldness of the West whose freedom results in fleeting encounters lacking depth, though this is obviously from his perspective. What did Jean think? What about his sisters? Is he interested in their struggle?

There is a strong atmosphere in his recounting an experience in Marrakech where the police seek to protect tourists and scorn the local ‘queers’. Many tourists are users but the locals can also be exploitative. ‘Everything was for sale’. This could equally describe Morocco, Geneva or Paris.

Some characters appear once only (like real life, I suppose, where many gay men have fleeing encounters) and some are introduced later, after you’ve wondered who they are

There are some memorable phrases, e.g. ‘I had a fit. In silence, obviously.’

It is rare to read a book in translation where it is uncontaminated by the translator yet this book is one such rarity. However, some better proofreading would have helped to root out Proof reading ‘busses’ for buses and ‘hbibe’ for habibe.

Our group loved this book. We want to meet the author.

Quotations:

“From drama to tragedy is a short step.”

“Sex, regardless of who we have it with, should never scare us.”

“Today, looking back, I tell myself that anything is possible.”

“True love, the kind that lasts and survives for years, is always full of passion and craziness.”

“Lose myself entirely, the better to find myself. To summon, one gray and very cold morning, an army for my own salvation”

“Is the person in love the one with all the rights?
Maybe the answer is no. But love, once it reaches such a rare and lived-in state, deserves our prayers and our indulgence.”

“He led me, in total silence, to this place I hadn’t discovered before, a place not far from la Placette: the public toilets. Once inside, I realized this place was all about something the rest of Geneva didn’t have: intense poetic sexuality.
A dozen men of all ages were lined up in front of the urinals and were lovingly looking at cock.”

“His name was Mohamed. And, like so many others, he dreamt about leaving Morocco some day, for France, Spain, Germany, it didn’t matter where, but his wildest dream was about going to the United States. He knew what he had to do, had even come up with a plan, a simple one, simple but effective: seduce a Western woman, offer himself to her, show her what a Moroccan man was capable of, in other words, fuck her like an animal, make her see stars in broad daylight, screw her nonstop, drive her wild, make her worthy of him, deserving of his cock.”

“I would always surrender myself, even among infidels. I don’t exist for myself anymore. I exist for him, belong to him. My life is not my own.”

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything. The important thing is that you keep moving, that you constantly keep reading a little bit more, a little bit more … And then one day, without even realising it, you’ll end up understanding everything.”

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Dan Leo and the Limehouse Golem – Peter Ackroyd (US title: The Trial of Elizabeth Cree)

DLLG(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

Many in our group enjoyed the author’s ‘Hawksmoor’. This novel was written nine years later and follows many of the same themes and fascinations, one might almost say obsessions.

This is a kaleidoscope of fragments which builds up the story by extracts from a (made up) diary, a trial transcript and the main character’s early history.  It begins at both ends and works towards the solution in the middle. There are surprises at the end of chapters, little hints all along so you wonder why a suspected a murderer reads Tennyson to his wife,  but it is not until you get to the end that they sink in so it maybe worth reading the book a second time to appreciate its clever crafting. No linear narrative here then, just like Ackroyd’s other London books.

These fragments come from all over the place and the author makes sense of them, just as we try to make sense out of the many events which make up out lives. One important fragment, woven into the story, is the main character, Lambeth Marsh Lizzie (Elizabeth Cree after her marriage) who is reminiscent of the title of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Liza of Lambeth. Maybe Ackroyd based his character on her because there are parallels: both are young women who have gone astray; both are the only child of a religious, hypocritical mother who mistreats them; both oppose their mother’s will; and both have lived all their childhood in poverty in Lambeth approximately in the same period. Both novels, deal with popular theatre influencing the lives and behaviour of the urban masses. Leno says, “We never do dirty – but double-entendres.”

Typically post-modern, the novel muses on the self. Who am I? Are we a consistent, integrated person or am I a series of different selves, reacting to the different people I meet, as it were a selection of stage personas. Poststructuralists tend to see the ‘self’ not as a fixed unity but more like a flux or a process which adapts to different situations and discourses it encounters. Elizabeth Cree does six acts a night, moving from theatre to theatre. She can be a girl, boy, man or woman. And Dan Leno “played so many parts that he hardly had time to be himself. And yet, somehow, he was always himself. He was the Indian squaw, the waiter, the milkmaid, or the train driver, but it was always Dan conjuring people out of thin air. …..suddenly he was the sour-faced spinster on the look-out for a man.” This Dan Leno is the master of masks and poses,  “He is endless” (But the real Dan Leno had a mental breakdown – his character(s) disintegrated.)

Where do we and the people in the book get our ‘characters’ from? Dan Leno wished to “understand the conditions which had, in a sense, created him”  He reads The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi as well as Thomas De Quincey’s essay on the famous clown, identified with him and saw parallels between Grimaldi’s and his own life. He, as it were, becomes him: when he lays sick and dying he repeats, word for word, Grimaldi’s farewell speech, “while those around his deathbed believed he was delirious.”  So Ackroyd emphasizes that we are products of our culture, and no more than that.  Our thoughts, dreams, and behaviour reflect our cultural and textual experience. We are what we read; everything we do or say has its complex origins in textual or cultural sources. “Sometimes I believe that I am made of ink and paper”, says Karl Marx.

Ackroyd’s interest in literary criticism is reflected here. Most of the characters are involved with texts, either reading, writing or stage acting. His characters read De Quincey’s essays. Karl Marx takes down from the shelf Dialogues of Three Templars on Political Economy by Thomas De Quincey, Dan Leno reads De Quincey’s essay on pantomime, ‘Laugh, Scream and Speech’. George Gissing writes his first public essay, ‘Romanticism and Crime’, and extols Thomas De Quincey’s impassionate prose. Most obviously, Thomas De Quincey’s essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”, an essay which evokes a sinister London, “a city of footsteps and flaring lights, of houses packed close together, of lacrymose alleys and false doors.” is surely where the author borrowed the crime plot, the ominous atmosphere of approaching doom; narrating from the murderer’s point of view, the access to the killer’s disturbed mind, the parallels between murder and acting, and the theatrical imagery which depicts the murderer very much like an artist in crime. Ackroyd even goes so far as to use the same setting (two houses on the Ratcliffe Highway, East London) and the same method of murder (the use of a mallet and a razor to crush the victims’ skulls and cut their throats).

The story, like the masks we wear in life, are all borrowed. John Cree plans to write a novel about urban poverty and “the crime and disease which it engendered” He does not go to the streets to collect his material but, instead, his first place of study is the Reading Room of the British Museum. “He had reserved a copy of Plumstead’s History of the London Poor and Molton’s A Few Sighs From Hell. Both books were concerned with the life of the indigent and the vagrant in the capital, and for that reason they were of especial interest to him.” So too, Ackroyd imitates the work of others: Dickens, Gaskell or George Gissing.

Where is integration to be found? The Reading Room of the British Museum becomes a place of almost mystical quality in this novel, the meeting point between various texts and discourses; this is where the roots of all the events in the book derive from; this is a giant library which can “be said to have affected the course of human history”. For George Gissing, who shares the author’s sense of place and identification of a spiritual home. Gissing lived ‘in the valley of the shadow of books’.

However, close to the centre of spirituality comes the occult, another of Ackroyd’s interests. Black and white go hand in hand.  Occult shops are to be found near the British Museum. And Gissing wonders about the invention of the calculating machine that may be draining away life, with souls trapped within it, maybe prefiguring computers and the alternative ‘reality’ of the online persona in social networking sites as an evasion of ‘real life’?

For a gay author, there are only two gay characters, the detective and his engineer boyfriend.

There are some strange terms used to describe people, probably commonly use at that time: Romanist, Hebrew.

Elizabeth’s childhood was spent in a house where the wallpaper was pages from the bible. Her Bible references are accurate, like Dot Cotton in East Enders. Her death bed confession shows her feistiness: “And I will fry eternally? I am surprised at you, father, for such childish notions. I cannot think of hell as some fish-shop. ….A sole may be fried, too.”, but also her mixing up of reality with pretence. She regarded the Mass as ‘such fun’, rather like the music hall where she had spent most of her working life.

So everything about us is created. But we should beware what we create. It could be a Frankenstein or a golem.

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The Less-Dead by April Lurie

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)THD

The less-dead are people whose deaths don’t seem to matter since they have no loved-ones to miss them. This is a detective story in which your friend might be your evenly and your enemy might be your friend. Who can you trust? What’s not to like?

The narrator is a straight teenager who, like most teenagers, is embarrassed by his father: with good reason since he is an evangelical preacher.

Someone who was formerly a member of the infamous ‘God hates fags’ Westboro’ Baptist church is suspected of being a serial murderer of gays. This unsettles the narrator’s father since he had tried to counsel this man. The narrator has invited a homeless gay teenager to his home and his father tries to help.

The hypocrisy of the ‘no sex before marriage’ rule is exposed – a convert says it is OK if he fornicates and then repents, and maybe repeats the process.

The failure of Exodus groups to change men’s sexual orientation and the misery such attempts cause is well portrayed.

In the back of her book, the author explains how the Bible’s ‘6 clobber texts’ against homosexuality are taken out of context and don’t mean what they appear, in the surface, to mean. However, scholarship as moved on and the evangelical understanding of these texts is much more nuanced but I did enjoy that prohibition against touching dead pig’s meat as meaning that football because it is an abomination! I also learned that Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority strove against Martin Luther King, claiming that racial integration was ‘the work of the devil that would destroy our race eventually.’

This female author has a lot of insight into the minds of teenage boys, both gay and straight. Her story should appeal to teenagers, though some American culture and background doesn’t appeal so much across the pond. evangelicals often speak of people ‘struggling with homosexuality’. At the back of this book there is a list of useful (American) websites for people ‘struggling with fundamentalism (and homophobia).’

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