The Dream Life of Astronauts: Nine Superb Short Stories from Patrick Ryan

Posted on August 31, 2016
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Let’s face it:  short story collections can be a tough sell.  Even the best of them include a few clunkers.  Some even throw in some unpublished fragments:  bits of what might have been a novel (novella?), but didn’t quite flesh out.   Perhaps more importantly, they tend to lack an underlying theme that somehow unites them.  But Patrick Ryan’s new short story collection, The Dream Life of Astronauts, is different.  These are undeniably short stories:  superb, classically-constructed short stories.  The common theme that unites them is geographic:  all of these stories take place a few miles from the Kennedy Space Center.  The net result is a smooth, enjoyable read and one of the best short story collections this queer reader has read in a long, long time.

Astronauts play a direct role in only one of the stories in this collection, but what happened in that region of the country was so extraordinary that it seems to resonate with everyone in these stories.  And Mr. Ryan knows this region well:  a quietly American enclave that sometimes resembles rural Wisconsin more than the sunny beachside stereotypes so often associated with Florida.

Beneath the surface there is another connecting theme to these stories:  namely, empathy.  Whether he is writing of a teen-aged boy with a crush on an astronaut, a grandmother contemplating an affair with her driving instructor, a teen-aged girl wanting to become Miss America or a mobster living in a retirement community, Mr. Ryan renders these stories with compassion.  Though frequently humorous, the reader never laughs at these characters.  Instead, we find ourselves cheering on their aspirations–not unlike the space mission itself.

Needless to say, Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.

Patrick Ryan’s The Dream Life of Astronauts is published by The Dial Press.

Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall is a Good Beach Read.

Posted on July 19, 2016
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love-slavesIf you’re looking for a good summer read, consider James Magruder’s Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall.  It follows the stories of the residents of a Yale dormitory in the school year of 1983-1984.  In all the there are nineteen central characters.  Normally following that many characters might present a challenge to the reader, but Mr. Magruder renders them crisply–without resorting to caricature.  They are gay, straight, bisexual and above-all  questioning.  This is a college dormitory where the quarters are close and the hormones are raging and these characters find themselves in situations that seem to surprise even themselves.

Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall bears a resemblance to Armistead Maupin’s best work, but Mr. Magruder has a style that is all his own.  This is a brilliantly-constructed novel, with enough plot twists to keep the pages turning on a sunny summer’s day.

For those of you who seek a fun read, Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.

 

James Magruder’s Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall is published by Queen’s Ferry Press.

 

 

Black Deutschland is Flawless.

Posted on June 24, 2016
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29BOOK-master180Although a novel, Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland reads like a memoir.  The style is simple, direct, conversational, flawless.  It the the story of an American abroad: a visitor to Berlin in the final days of the wall.  His journey from the superficially exotic, but ultimately predictable world of Berlin’s nightlife to the entirely unpredictable reality of his own sobriety forms the core of this novel.   The narrator’s voice is erudite, intellectual, highly-educated and peppered with ironic wit.  As an African-American gay man, he defies the stereotypes many impose upon him.  Indeed, defying stereotypes is one of the leitmotifs of this novel.

That most German of American cities, Chicago, plays a large part in this novel as well.  Through a series of flashbacks the narrator’s middle-class childhood is revealed.  But this is not Oak Park middle-class or even Hyde Park middle-class.  It is the middle-class of Bronzeville.  It is a middle-class world where people feel connected to their neighbors.  It isn’t surprising to see them congregating at his family’s house to watch the funeral of Harold Washington.  Nor is it surprising to see his mother taking in troubled women in the neighborhood–“crazies” he calls them.

The structure of this novel is almost invisible.  Mr. Pinckney’s conversational style perfectly conceals it.  And it is only at the very end that we realize how far we’ve come on this journey of discovery with this fascinating man.

Queer Reader strongly recommends this book.

Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland is published by Farrar Straus Giroux

What is a Gay Novel?

Posted on March 20, 2016
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1283721Now that both the Publishing Triangle and the Lambda Literary finalists have been announced, it’s a good time to ask the question:  What makes a novel gay?  Gay characters?  A gay theme?  And does the author have to be gay?

The so-called “gay novel,” first attracted national attention when Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story made The New York Times Bestseller list in 1982.  A Boy’s Own Story had a gay narrator, a gay theme and an out gay author.  It was also masterfully written and many today consider it to be the “great gay novel.”  Four years earlier, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance was published and many also consider this book to be “the great gay novel.”  Of course, gay novels, in one form or another have been published for many years.  Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle are just a few examples.  But prior to the nineteen-seventies, the term “gay novel” was rarely used and certainly wasn’t a tool for marketing.  Nevertheless, by the nineteen-eighties, several gay novelists emerged.  Most notably:  Patrick Gale, Scott Peck, John Weir David Feinberg and David Leavitt.  All of them were out gay men writing about gay characters in novels with gay themes.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that things have gotten more complicated in recent years.  Many gay authors are no longer “writing gay”.   And some of the best queer novels are written by straight authors.  John Irving’s In One Person is arguably “the great gay novel”, although “bisexual novel,” is probably a more accurate term.  It tells the story of one bisexual person’s survival over several decades, including the years of the AIDS crisis.  It is exhaustively researched and brilliantly written.   And in 2013, Lambda Literary awarded In One Person, the “Bisexual Literature Award”, even though Mr. Irving is straight.

When I chatted with Bernardine Evaristo at the 2015 Publishing Triangle Awards, she told me that when she learned her novel, Mr. Loverman  was a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, she was certain it wouldn’t win.  When I asked, why? she replied:  “Because I’m not gay.”  Fortunately The Publishing Triangle disagreed and awarded her the prize.

This year, queer readers are presented with yet another quandary.  2016 saw the publication of Hanya Yanaghihara’s A Little Life–a novel Garth Greenwell boldly proclaimed to be “the great gay novel”.  But what makes it gay?  Gay characters?  Yes, but “bisexual” or even “questioning” might be more accurate terms.  A gay theme?  Debatable.  And as to the sexuality of its author…  Well, this queer reader would like to believe we’ve reached the point where that just doesn’t matter anymore.

But how else can we explain the absence of this great novel from any of the Lambda finalists lists?  Is it possible that the sexuality of its author–or more accurately the lack of information about the sexuality of its author–prevented A Little Life from being a finalist?  Or must a “gay novel” be gay themed in order for it to become a finalist?  We will probably never know the answers to these questions.

Fortunately the Publishing Triangle got it right this year.  A Little Life is a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT fiction.

The Publishing Triangle Awards will be announced on April 21st.  Click here for a complete list of finalists.

The Lambda Literary Awards will be announced on June 6th.  Click here for a complete list of finalists.

 

 

 

What Belongs to You is a Good Old-Fashioned Gay Novel.

Posted on February 3, 2016
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Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is a good, old-fashioned gay novel.   In the tradition of Edmund White,  Mr. Greenwell tells a very personal story.  And like Mr. White, Mr. Greenwell doesn’t shy away from sex.   Sexuality isn’t incidental to this book; it is central.

What Belongs to You tells the story of an American school teacher’s relationship with a Bulgarian hustler named Mitko.   Mr. Greenwell’s writing is at his best in the first part of this novel.  Here he precisely–and often amusingly–describes Mitko’s almost childlike appreciation of the smallest material things and his seemingly genuine  affection, which can be turned on  like a faucet with the prospect of cash.  Early on we learn that the narrator is breaking an unwritten self-imposed rule not to pay for sex, as much from sexual ego as from economics.  But the narrator succumbs to Mitko’s charms.  The reader isn’t entirely sure why.  In fact, the underlying question in part one becomes, why?  Why does this seemingly normal, out, gay, middle class American with friends decide to become involved with a twenty-two year old hustler with only a seventh grade education?

In part two, valuable insights about the narrator are revealed.  Here a series of flashbacks reveal a troubled, deeply unhappy childhood.   We learn that his father was a serial philanderer.  We learn how his first potentially meaningful same sex relationship was shattered by fear and heterosexism.  And ultimately we learn that his father–driven by homophobic hatred–abandoned him.

And yet this central question remains unanswered.  Perhaps that’s for the best.  After all, there is something that is ultimately mysterious about the human heart.  And good literature explores it.

Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is published by Farrar Straus Giroux.

A Little Life is Like No Other Novel.

Posted on November 30, 2015
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9780385539258_custom-d9f99efb706cdce0a72e0930a8e3bb72ac393f76-s400-c85To paraphrase Tolstoy, great novels are not all alike.  Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, for example, is like no other novel.  It is an epic novel that follows several characters over decades.  But what sets A Little Life apart is the depth of its characterizations.   The characters in A Little Life are fully realized, complex and not at all predictable.  They are also interconnected completely.  Co-dependency isn’t a dirty word to them.  When a childless couple decides to adopt a grown man, it isn’t entirely surprising.  Though approximately the same length as The Fountainhead, A Little Life is the anti-Ayn Rand novel.  In Yanagihara’s world, no man (or woman) is an island.  A Little Life is the story of how people not only depend on each other, but beyond that, how they are shaped by and even defined by each other.

At the heart of this story is Jude, a brilliant man who is tormented by a horrific childhood.  His response to this is to cut himself:  to literally take a razor blade to his skin and watch it bleed.  It is to Ms. Yanagihara’s credit that this queer reader found these sections to be almost too painful to read.  On several occasions I actually found myself looking away from the book.  Her detailed descriptions are grisly, ghastly–as they should be.  A Little Life isn’t exactly an easy read, but this queer reader found it to be compelling and, near the end, almost impossible to put down.

Ms. Yanagihara doesn’t serve up a cliched happy ending here.  For while A Little Life is about how some people can help each other, it is also about how some people can harm each other deeply.  And sometimes that harm is irreparable.

Needless to say, Queer Reader strongly recommends this novel.

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is published by Knopf.

 

On the Anniversary Of QueerReader.com

Posted on July 31, 2015
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This month, QueerReader.com quietly celebrated it’s seventh anniversary.  It’s a good time to take stock.

When this website was launched, there were literally LGBT bookstores from coast to coast.  A Different Light had branches in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Washington DC had a gay bookstore, as did several medium-size cities across the U.S.  And New York’s historic Oscar Wilde Bookshop was still going strong.  Or so it seemed.  No one I knew then was predicting that within a few short years they would all be gone.

There is no doubt that the landscape of queer literature is changing drastically.  For one thing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define.  Some of our best gay authors are no longer “writing gay.”  And the two best queer novels were written by straight authors:  John Irving’s In One Person and Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman.  Queer Literature today is fluid, unpredictable, but in many ways the quality is higher than it’s ever been.

Last year was an exceptionally good year for queer fiction. The jury is still out on this year.  But for those who continue to proclaim the death of Queer Literature, consider this:  Next year will see the publication of new works by Christopher Bram, Garth Greenwell, James Magruder, Patrick Ryan, Bob Smith and Edmund White.

So stay tuned.

The Publishing Triangle Gets It Right–Mostly.

Posted on March 12, 2015
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On Tuesday, the Publishing Triangle announced the finalists for their annual awards. As Queer Reader has noted before, 2014 was a surprisingly good year for queer fiction–making the task of narrowing it all down particularly difficult.  For the most part The Publishing Triangle has gotten it right.  The best novel of the year, Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman, is a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction.  And Michael Carroll’s Little Reef is a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction.  This queer reader would also have liked to have seen James Magruder’s Let Me See It on one of these lists.  And I have already noted the Publishing Triangle’s–and the Lambda’s–tendency to pass on more commercial titles like Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen and Armistead Maupin’s The Days of Anna Madrigal.  But this is not a time to quibble.  This is a time to celebrate.  Being cited as a finalist for a Publishing Triangle Award is indeed an honor in itself and Ms. Evaristo and Mr. Carroll should be congratulated.

The Publishing Triangle Awards will be announced on Thursday, April 23rd at the New School Auditorium, 66 West Twelfth Street, New York City at 7:00 pm.

UPDATE 4/23/15:  Tonight it was announced that Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman won the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT fiction.  Click here for the complete list of winners.

On the Lambda Awards’ Tough Choices

Posted on March 5, 2015
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The Lambda Literary Award Finalists were announced yesterday and this year they had some tough choices to make.  In a particularly strong year for fiction, there were bound to be some worthy books left out.  But let’s start first with what they got right.

Michael Caroll's Little Reef is superb.Michael Carroll’s Little Reef is a superb short story collection.  In the last story in the book, “Unsticking”, the narrator sees his own mortality in the mirror of contemporary youth culture.  It is a haunting story which improves with a second and a third reading.   But this is by no means the only excellent story in this book.  The highly autobiographical, “Admissions” tells the story of the narrator’s fiance’s climb back from a stroke.  It is a beautiful, honest and true story.  In “First Responder”,  a gay man becomes close to his straight brother after he assumes the role of his brother’s helpmate.  It is an unapologetically queer story and it is also flawless.  All of the stories in this collection are very good.

Sadly, the Lambdas somehow missed several superb books:

First, James Magruder’s Let Me See It, which is the most unlikely of books:  a short story collection that is also a genuine page-turner.  It is a journey through two decades of queer history.  And a must read.

It is also hard to understand how the Lambdas passed on Armistead Maupin’s The Days of Anna Madrigal:  the final volume in his Tales of the City Series.  This book is, in this Queer Reader’s opinion, the best of the series.

Not every critic appreciated Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen, but this queer reader found it to be surprisingly wise.  And Mr. Cunningham’s most New York novel to date.

And now we come to the best novel of 2014:  Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman. It is the story of Barrington:  a septuagenarian West Indian man who has finally reached the decision to come out as gay.  Told from the perspectives of both Barrington and his wife, this book is at once lyrical and surprisingly entertaining.  The result left this queer reader completely satisfied.  It should be noted that Mr. Loverman was published in the United Kingdom in 2013, so there may have been some confusion about its publication date.   For what ever reason–this great queer novel was largely overlooked in the United States.

In such a strong year for queer fiction it is a shame that the Lambda Awards don’t separate short story collections from novels, but that’s the way it is.  More troubling is the Lambda’s–and the Publishing Triangle’s–tendency to pass on the more commercial titles.

The Lambda Literary Awards will be announced on June 1, 2015 at The Cooper Union Hall in New York.

UPDATE 6/2/15:  Last night the winners of the Lambda Literary Awards were announced.   Click here for the results.

2014 Was a Surprisingly Good Year for Queer Lit.

Posted on December 31, 2014
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Here’s something you might have missed:  2014 was a good year for Queer Lit.  It began with the publication of The Days of Anna Madrigal:  the final volume of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series.  Then came Edmund White’s warm-hearted Paris memoir, Inside a Pearl.  A superb new novel by Michael Cunningham.  The American publication of Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman.  Debut fiction from Michael Carroll and James Magruder.  Add to this the reopening of Giovanni’s room in Philadelphia and it ends up being a surprisingly good year.

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