Category Archives: Book Reviews

Catching Up

OK, folks, it’s been a while but I’m back. Applying to jobs is stressful! I’ve still been reading, though. Probably too much so as to avoid doing things I should be doing, like sending out cover letters and résumés. I had an interview last week in DC that went well, so now I can relax a little. I’ve read too many books to do full reviews of so I’m going to give short reactions to some of the better books I’ve read over the past several months. Here goes!

I. In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master by Tim Teeman

If you’re looking for something salacious, thought-provoking, and full of history, look no further. Teeman’s investigation of Gore Vidal’s life, including his upbringing, his romantic and sexual relationships, and his writings, reads like a wild romp through mid-century America. Vidal’s views were radical for his time and very likely still would be today. In particular, his views on sexual orientation were and continue to be divisive. Despite the fact that he lived with a man for decades, by his own account slept with hundreds of men, and wrote legendary books like The City and the Pillar that defined gay literature for many years afterward, Vidal refused to identify as gay. There are only gay acts, he claimed, not gay people. Gore Vidal’s views on human sexuality make this look into his sexual and literary life an interesting contrast to the identity politics of today. Perhaps Vidal was right? I’m not so sure, but Teeman’s book was nonetheless a satisfying read.

II. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Of the Roth novels I’ve read over the past couple of years, The Human Stain is without a doubt my absolute favorite; I have a hard time believing that any of his numerous other novels will outshine it for me. However, TPAA is a well-written (as always) and convincingly imagined retelling of WWII American history. In Roth’s fictitious America where Charles Lindbergh, anti-Semite, has become President, America’s Jews worry that they might face the same brutal carnage as their cousins in Europe. As in his other novels, the tension between Jewish and American identities and family drama (Roth uses his own family as a template in this novel) play a central role in the plot.

III. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

Kushner’s celebrated novel definitely lived up to all the hype, something I can’t say about her first novel, Telex from Cuba. In this novel a girl named Reno (yes, she is from the eponymous city in Nevada), the 1970s New York art world, and radical politics of post-WWII Italy are woven together in a way that feels very much of the moment, despite being set 40 years in the past. Kushner has a real gift for dialogue and creating well thought out characters. This is one of those rare novels that is simultaneously both smart and eminently readable.

IV. As Meat Loves Salt Maria McCann

The English Civil War meets gay romance in this titillating novel that the Economist called one of the year’s best. McCann creates a believable romance between two men during one of the most turbulent periods of English history. She uses enough period language to transport you 400 years into the past but not so much that the work becomes unreadable for a layperson. This is a long book, but it’s fast moving plot, rich characters, and, of course, some strategically placed sexual trysts, make it a real page-turner.

V. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Before reading this book I didn’t know much about Scientology other than the fact that some of its most prominent members, Tom Cruise and John Travolta, were famous and powerful figures in the entertainment industry. Wright’s investigation into the religion (it is classified as being such by the IRS for tax purposes, a particularly interesting episode detailed in the book) reads like investigative journalism of the best sort. I came to this book wanting to know more about the actual beliefs of Scientologists and came away shocked and appalled by the extreme physical and emotional abuse the Church perpetrates against many of its members. A must read for anyone interested in religion, belief, and cults.

VI. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

I’ve always heard good things about Larson’s popular history books. Being particularly interested in the years around WWII, I decided to give this one a go. The books tells the unlikely story of a University of Chicago history professor who moves to Berlin in the 1930s with his wife and two grown children to serve as US Ambassador to Germany. Larson gives a real sense of immediacy to the family’s encounters with the German establishment and the expat community as over time the begin to grasp the gravity of events taking place around them. This book is a fast read makes an excellent weekend escape.

VII. NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith

NW follows several residents of immigrant neighborhoods in the northwest section on London, offering up rich insights on class, culture, race and socioeconomic background in modern Britain. I read this book expecting a lot more than I got. Last summer I read White Teeth and was absolutely blown away by its ingenious plot and fascinating characters. NW lacked the narrative richness and engrossing quality that kept my engrossed in White Teeth page after page. I rarely say that a book was a huge disappointment, but NW has earned that unfortunate designation from me.

VIII. Lords of Finance: The Bankers who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahmed

This is an excellent book on international finance after the first World War. I know, that probably sounds like an awful lie. But, truthfully, for a well thought out and convincingly laid out argument as to why the world – particularly Europe – found itself in such trouble in the the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, once would be hard pressed to find a better book than this. A mix of biography, history, and narrative prose make this book approachable for anyone interested in the subject regardless of background.

IX. Found in the Street by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith has spun yet another tale of disturbing intrigue. Ralph Linderman, like so many of Highsmith’s “weirdos,” thinks of himself as a good guy, but everyone else who meets him encounters something slightly off about the middle-aged man with a dog named God. A night guard by profession, he has taken to following Elsie, a young blonde girl from upstate New York, often warning her not to fall in with the wrong crowed. When Ralph finds and returns a lost wallet to John Sutherland, an artist, the tension between Ralph and the other characters begins to mount. Ralph is generally regarded as a creep, often gets the facts hilariously wrong, but in the end, he may have turned to have had Elsie’s best interests in mind all along.

X. Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart

Novelist Gary Shteyngart tells the story of he and his family moving from 1970s Leningrad to Queens New York. His memoir is a comedic and heartbreaking story about a family of Russian Jews starting over in the United States and the struggles Shteyngart faced in living up to his parents’ expectation that he should become a lawyer. I now plan on reading Shteyngart’s novels and hope that I can pick up on some of the autobiographical details included in them. Little Failure should find its place among other great immigrant tales.

 

 

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The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

The Two Hotel Francforts - NYT Book Review Art

Photo credit: Luci Gutierrez – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/books/review/the-two-hotel-francforts-by-david-leavitt.html

David Leavitt’s newest novel, a New York Times notable book for 2013, is an absorbing read. I picked up the book last night, or rather I downloaded an electronic copy, and found much needed respite from the holiday crowds in its engrossing pages. After reading until I could no longer keep my eyes open last night, I woke up and finished off the last quarter of the novel this morning over an espresso – perhaps not unlike the bicas, a sort of Portuguese version of the drink, that the novel’s characters drink on Lisbon’s sun-soaked plazas and over whose consumption much of the novel unfolds.

The Two Hotel Francforts takes place in 1940, during the first summer of World War II. Salazar’s Lisbon is an unlikely safe haven for American and British expatriates on their way out of Europe, but more importantly, for European Jews escaping Nazi German-occupied lands. The Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, violated his orders and signed some 30,000 visas for Jewish refugees saving them from near certain death. Against this heavy backdrop, Leavitt crafts an exquisite tale about the improbable relationship that develops between Pete and Julia Winters and Edward and Iris Freleng. Both couples have fled France and are waiting for the Manhattan to take them to the safety of still neutral United States.

The improbable connection between the Winters and the Frelengs happens in the Café Suiça – a popular hangout on the city’s central square, the Rossio – when Pete drops his glasses and a “passing waiter, in his effort to keep his trayful of coffee cups from spilling, kicked the classes down the pavement, right into Edward Freleng’s path.” Pete’s loss of vision, his temporary blindness and subsequent reliance on others to guide him, at the expense of his relationship with his wife, is a theme Leavitt employs throughout the novel. After the incident the Freleng’s, who co-author mystery novels but who otherwise live a life of leisure, invite Pete and Julia to come to their table for a drink. Julia, already upset at being forced to leave their adopted home in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, begrudgingly leaves her solitaire games and is agitated further by the Freleng’s elderly dog, Daisy, licking her ankles. Over the course of this first conversation (and the narrator’s guidance) we learn that Julia comes from a wealthy German Jewish family in New York – hence his desire to get her out of Europe as fast as possible – and the Iris (a British citizen) and Edward, who could have gone to England earlier, are going to the States to avoid having to quarantine Daisy.

From this chance encounter the two seemingly happy couples are thrown into an emotional-sexual vortex that one among them, the slightly paranoid Julia, will not survive. Iris cajoles Julia into going to Daisy’s vet appointment with her, while Edward walks Pete back to his hotel, the Hotel Francfort. The Freleng’s are staying at the dodgier Francfort Hotel. “Just think, here we are fleeing the Germans, and we end up at a hotel called Francfort,” Edward observes. In the Winter’s hotel room Edward makes bawdy comments about Julia’s delicate undergarments hanging in the bathroom, contrasting her slim figure with Iris’s stopped posture, fuller frame, and schoolgirl underwear. For the first time, but certainly not the last, Edward is caught off guard by Edward’s forwardness. Pete notes that when Edward sits on Julia’s vanity seat “His legs were spread just wide enough that his trousers bunched at the crotch.”

That evening after the couples dine an off-the-beaten-path restaurant where Edward has inexplicably hardly established and friendly rapport with the owner, Pete and Edward take a drive to the resort town of Estoril, leaving their wives to retire to their respective hotels. This evening marks the true genesis of Pete and Edward’s passionate, violent, and, ultimately, destructive affair. Enamored by Edward’s ease at leading and enervated from being Julia’s constant support, before their first sexual encounter on the beach, Pete fit his “footprints in his [Edward’s], to that there would be only one set. Pete then took off his glasses, the blind love theme resurfacing, and swam toward Edward, who looked, tellingly, like he “might have been a rock or sea monster.” The next morning, Pete notes that, “For a man who is habituated to sleeping with women, the body of another man in always a bewilderment, not in its strangeness but in its familiarity – the strangeness of its familiarity.” Leavitt’s descriptions of Pete and Edward’s and Pete and Julia’s sexual encounters throughout the rest of the novel contain equally thoughtful insights.

As the affair heats up, Pete and Edward arrange to spend their afternoons together, meeting the wives for dinner. Brothels, empty fields and hidden corners host their private moments. The plot thickens when Pete reveals that Iris knows about the affair. Iris and Edward, who has frequent nervous attacks, have had a sexless marriage since the birth of their autistic daughter. Edward sends men he finds attractive to sleep with his wife so that he may fantasize about them afterwards. Iris, resigned to her fate, her self-imposed punishment for loving Edward so deeply, sternly warns Pete that Julia must not be allowed to become award of “the thing that will surely kill her.”

Passionate affairs are, by their very nature, limited by factors beyond the lovers’ control. Such is the case for Pete and Edward. Julia becomes suspicious that something, though she is unsure of what, has gone awry. Before the Manhattan is set to sail for New York she commits suicide. Free to finally spend an entire night together, Pete no longer wants to “spend a whole night with Edward, much less sleep in with him.” Pete, unaccustomed to the Freleng’s easy-come-easy-go lifestyle is ready to find something purposeful to do again. The last pages of the novel occur several years after the couples have split apart. The Freleng’s have divorced and Pete, the only character to have preserved himself in the aftermath of the Lisbon affair, disembarked at the last minute and stayed in Europe to help run a refugee smuggling route with a Unitarian Universalist doctor he met in his hotel lobby.

This is a fabulous, impossible-to-put-down novel. Anyone interested in historical novels, dangerous liaisons, Americans abroad novels, or contemporary novels that give frank portrayals of same-sex attraction during a period when it was much less accessible will find much to appreciate in The Two Hotel Francforts.

Related Reading:

  1. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
  2. The Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith
  3. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

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Out of the Closet, into the Bookstore

A good man is hard to find. And so are novels – gay ones, that is. Over the last three years I’ve read quite a few novels by/about gay men. They helped me to come out the closet and have continued to provide excellent reading material ever since.

The lists below contain some of the novels that have been most important to me. I hope that any other guys who are considering coming out or who have already come out read some of these and find them useful.

Comment below to share your thoughts about these books or any other worthy gay books you may have read. But first, this book lover.

ImageHe’s not exactly reading, BUT WHO CARES?!

Personal Favorites

  1. Call me By Your Name by André Aciman
  2. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
  3. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
  4. The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal
  5. At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill

More Good Reads

  1. The Absolutist by John Boyne
  2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  3. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

These are Just Fun

  1. I Am Not Myself These Days: A Memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell
  2. Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight?: Confessions of a Gay Dad by Dan Bucatinsky
  3. Let’s Discuss Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Next on My List

  1. The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt
  2. In Bed with Gore Vidal by Tim Teeman
  3. Christopher and His Kind by Christopher Isherwood
  4. Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns by David Margolick

…and the list goes on and on.

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The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson

The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson

It is rare that I finish a book and upon closing it think, I am so glad that I read this book. Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth is one of those books.

This book seeks to answer the big questions: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Humans have grappled with these questions for as long as we have existed. Wilson contends that the true nature of the human condition can only be revealed through rigorous scientific scholarship. To get to the core of what he believes to be the human condition, Wilson relies on his long, distinguished career  – which includes two Pulitzer Prizes – studying ants and social behavior. Ants, like Homo sapiens, are one of the few eusocial (“true social condition”) species. Wilson states that members of eusocial species “belong to multiple generations. They divide labor in what outwardly at least appears to be an altruistic manner. Some take labor roles that shorten their life spans or reduce the number of personal offspring, or both. Their sacrifice allows others who fill reproductive roles to live longer and produce proportionately more offspring.”

Wilson argues strongly that altruism, acting selflessly in defense of others, is the key to understanding humanity’s rapid evolution and explosive growth in numbers. Existing theories of the evolution of altruism focus on the role of competition between members of groups and between groups themselves. Richard Dawkins, well known for The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, is a strong supporter of this explanation, known as kin selection and inclusive fitness. Wilson, however, finds these explanations to be unsatisfactory. Kin selection and its close cousin, inclusive fitness, may explain why a parent would die for his/her child or why a girl might save her drowning younger brother. However, Wilson contends that kin selection does not explain why a colony of bees sacrifice so much for the collective good or why someone might save an unrelated stranger from a burning building.

Wilson asserts that group selection, rather than individual selection, is responsible for humanity’s astoundingly fast evolution, our tribal nature, and the development of culture. He draws upon a figure no less well respected in the field of evolution than Charles Darwin, who said that tribes where members give of themselves for the greater good “would be victorious over most other tribes.” In other words, selfish individuals may beat altruistic ones, but altruistic groups are genetically destined to be more successful than selfish ones. The human condition, Wilson contends, arises from our struggle between selfishness and altruism. “The dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection, in which individual selection and group selection act together on the same individual, but largely in opposition to each other,” he writes.

After laying out this new “eusocial” theory of human evolution, Wilson applies it to the question, “What are we?”. He offers (perhaps too) speedy explanations for the origins of language, the creative arts, morality, and religion. Wilson asserts the religion does not facilitate submission to God but “to no more than a tribe united by a creation myth.” He concludes his view of religion by stating that “A good first step for the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully, the claims of those in power who claim they speak for God, are a special representative of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God’s divine will.” For those familiar with Dawkins’ work this will not be an entirely unfamiliar take on religion. However, Wilson handles the subject with greater respect for the religious than Dawkins does.

On the whole this is an incredibly well written book. Wilson wrote with a general (educated)  audience in mind. I was able to follow along quite well with my International Baccalaureate biology from high school and microbiology from college. The Social Conquest of Earth is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the origins of humanity, evolution, or the development of culture.

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The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, takes place primarily in North Korea, one of the most secretive and intensely isolated states in the world. A major theme of the novel is identity. Under Kim Jong-Il, often referred to as the Dear Leader, and the oppressive state apparatus he sits at the helm of, one must be flexible to the extreme in order to survive. In one memorable instance Dr. Song, a high level official, says to the novel’s protagonist Jun Do, “Where we are from stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

Jun Do, whose name is reminiscent of the English expression for any unknown man, John Doe, is a perfect embodiment of this piece of advice. The novel’s first section is a biography of his youth and young adulthood. From the orphanage where he is raised, Jun Do is selected to learn to fight in the dark subterranean tunnels the DPRK regime has dug under the DMZ into South Korea, the North’s “soiled little sister.” Subsequently, Jun Do is trained to kidnap citizens of foreign countries and to listen to radio transmissions at night on a fishing boat, where he becomes enthralled by the nightly broadcasts of two American girls who are attempting to row around the world. This biographical portion of the novel ends with Jun Do being taken on a trip to Abilene, Texas. Americans are described to him as being “very sentimental,” particularly towards dogs, and that having Jun Do on the diplomatic mission to tell a concocted story about being abused by the US Navy will win him favor among American political wives. Upon returning to North Korea, Jun Do is taken away to a prison mine camp for unclear reasons.

The second section of the novel tells the story of the Dear Leader’s archrival Commander Ga, whose name and family have been given to Jun Do, and the elaborate scheme he concocts to save Ga’s wife, the “national actress” Sun Moon, and her children. Unlike the first section of the novel, the second has three unique narrators. The first, which provides a measure of comic relief for a plot that descends continuously into the vagaries of life in North Korea, is the loudspeaker found in every home, workplace, and public space in the country. The voice from the speaker tells the propaganda version of the relationship between Commander Ga and Sun Moon. The second narrator is Commander Ga, who gives the most reliable account of what is truly happening. And the third narrator is an unnamed government interrogator who is attempting to write Commander Ga’s true biography.

The end of the novel will not come as a surprise to most leaders and the book is too long. However, even with those two qualifications, this is still a very good novel. Johnson gives life and agency to characters in a country that is frequently the subject of media attention but about whose citizens about whom we know next to nothing. Jun Do’s transformation from perfect compliance in carrying out orders handed down from people in power to driving forward a scheme that will disprove the invincibility of the Kim Jong-Il’s absolute power is a thrill to experience.

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Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain

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Established literary critic Caleb Crain published his masterful first novel, Necessary Errors (Penguin), this August. The novel takes place in 1990, one year after the Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia. Jacob Putnam, the novel’s protagonist, is a newly out Harvard graduate and aspiring writer, who has come to Prague to teach English and write his first novel. Jacob and his colleagues at the still state sponsored language institute attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of young adulthood amidst and alongside the denizens of Prague, the elegant city that will, soon after the novel’s conclusion and the Velvet Divorce of the Czech and Slovak regions of the country, be the capital city of the new Czech Republic.

Necessary Errors is in many ways a classic Americans abroad novel, in the vein of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Jacob and his fellow expats – among them Melinda, a confident, well-educated English woman, her politically astute American lover Rafe, as well as Thom and Michael, two garrulous Scots, and Carl, Jacob’s straight friend and unrequited love from college who makes a long-term visit to Prague – like Hemingway’s characters, don’t seem to do much of anything of great value with their time. Sure they work at the language institute, teach private lessons for extra cash (in order to cope with the rising cost of living ahead of capitalism’s imminent arrival), and have occasional success in love, but the bulk of the novel, and many of it richest passages, takes place in the city’s largely state-owned bars, cafés, and restaurants. The real action unfolds in the characters’ seemingly endless supply of idle time as they debate the merits of dying communism versus ascendant capitalism and what they want to do with their lives. All of this happening under the influence of cheap harsh Czech cigarettes and what must amount to lakes of beer and liquor by the novel’s end.

Necessary Errors is also a coming of age novel. Jacob, who is openly gay at home in the States, is at first reluctant to come out in Prague. This hesitancy is partly due to Jacob’s introverted nature; books are the one place where he feels truly free. However, upon first meeting Melinda and being invited to a party, Jacob admits that he was considering going to a bar, “A gay bar,” to be exact. The gay bar in question, T-Club, was listed in a gay travel guide that Jacob went to lengths to keep surreptitiously hidden away when anyone from the language institute visited his apartment, which he rented from the cantankerous Mr. Stelikh whose daughter, Beta, is a student where Jacob teaches. In his early months in Prague, Jacob spends many evenings at T-Club where he meets Lubos and a posse of young gay Czech men led by the flamboyant Ota, who has already learned to dress in preppy American style. Jacob has a brief affair with Lubos, which is ultimately unsuccessful due to a series of misunderstandings and divergent expectations. Before they have sex for the first time, Lubos tells Jacob that he has AIDS. Upon this revelation, Jacob “leaned over Lubos and embraced him – awkwardly … in tears.” Lubos, “who had hardened a little at Jacob’s tears, said the news was recent.” A conversation ensued about the prevalence of AIDS in Eastern Europe, where the disease was still relatively rare, and America, then at the height of the AIDS crisis, Lubos tells Jacob that he made a kecám, a joke.  In the final section of the novel Jacob’s luck turns around and he has the good fortune to have a much happier affair with Milo, an amateur photographer and frequent patron of T-Club.

If at times Necessary Errors seems to drag, the reader remains engaged due to Cain’s skilled prose. Almost every page of the novel is peppered with beautiful descriptions, like this one of an anti-communist Dane turned lamenter of Communism’s passage: “Golden hair on marble skin – Hans was like a sugar cookie, Jacob thought.” Or this one that describes Jacob and Milo’s nascent relationship: “They sat talking naked so often and so long perhaps because they liked to be able to read the whole opalescent page of each other at once.”

The novel ends as Jacob’s year in Prague comes to an end and he returns to America to attend graduate school, having written only one short story that he rather dislikes. Like Jacob, other characters too leave Prague, while more plan to do so, and the remainder are unsure of what lays ahead of them. Crain and this novel truly excel when discussing the travails of young adulthood: Where do I go? What do I become? Who Am I? The novel’s conclusion leaves Jacob’s answers to these questions ambiguous, yet simultaneously gratifying. One could say of Necessary Errors what Jacob’s friend Annie says of the German writer Thomas Mann, “Nothing whatever happens for pages and pages, and one doesn’t mind somehow.”

Buy this novel

Check your local independent book store or use the links below!

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Necessary-Errors-Novel-Caleb-Crain/dp/014312241X

Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/necessary-errors-caleb-crain/1113861367

Kobo: http://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/books/Necessary-Errors/r5lx5nwjAkSNT-Zsuwb1sA

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