31 July 2009

Book Notes: Grief by Andrew Holleran

Paperback, 150 pages
From Hyperion
(May 31, 2006)
ISBN: 978-1401308940

“She was no longer wrestling with grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts.”
--George Eliot

Grief by Andrew Holleran is a quiet one hundred and fifty pages of reading. Entering into this book’s pages is akin to departing a busy city street for the stillness of an empty art gallery or a hushed library. The outside world grows dim and fades with Holleran’s beautiful prose.

The narrator of the book, whose name we never learn, arrives in Washington D.C. after the death of his elderly mother. He rents a room in a large house near Dupont Circle and teaches a university course on AIDS literature for a single quarter or semester. None of the characters are named, except for the narrator’s friend Frank, a cancer survivor. The other characters are defined in relation to the narrator: the landlord, the downstairs neighbor, the downstairs neighbor’s boyfriend. Perhaps a large portion of this book’s internal stillness comes from the unnamed people who populate it.

The narrator finds a book in his room, “Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters" by Justin Turner and Linda Levitt. It chronicles Mrs. Lincoln’s endless mourning for her assassinated husband. There is a beautiful parallel between the narrator’s own grief and the letters of Mrs. Lincoln. You can’t miss it, but it is done like everything else in this book, with a gentle hand. The narrator spends his time teaching, speaking to his friend Frank, reading and walking about Washington D.C.

A reader may wonder where the story is going, but what it lacks in plot it makes up for in depth and breadth. The narrator is filled with both grief and guilt. These emotions play out on numerous levels in him and through the actions of other characters in the book, even the landlord’s dog becomes a kind of object lesson in loss. (I promise the dog doesn’t die.) As Holleran writes, “When some terrible misfortune happens it's not just the victim who suffers. There's a ripple effect. Everyone around the victim is affected."

If Holleran’s novel were a classical piece of music, it could be Bach's Goldberg Variations. This book is a meditation on differing types of grief, longing, and mourning. The narrator explores his feelings about his mother and the loss of so many gay men to the AIDS epidemic, and the loss of his youth. More than just the loss of friends and family Grief addresses the loss of youth, looks, and sexual appeal that comes with aging. The narrator and his landlord are in their mid-fifties and discuss their growing inability to attract the younger men they are still attracted to. Grief is also a frank look at gay middle-age.

I am hesitant to read any book with “grief” in its title. I feared that I would be settling into a book about clinical depression or myopic hopelessness. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. At the center of Holleran’s shining and elegant prose are a quiet hope and the belief in human endurance. Holleran’s book is a slow descent to the shining bottom of what makes us human.

30 July 2009

Book Notes: So Many Ways to Sleep Badly by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Paperback: 256 pages
From City Lights Publishers
(September 1, 2008)
ISBN: 978-0872864689

When I began reading So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I knew that the book had been called “experimental” and that its publisher City Lights Books had a reputation for publishing avant-garde work. Words like “ground-breaking” usually warn me that the book has already dug its own grave. This is not the case with So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (SMWtSB).

This book is filled with sound. The city of San Francisco and the life of the narrator vibrate with the noises that surround him: the shuttle of the BART, people yelling in the streets, the scuttle of mice and roaches, and NPR in the background. In fact, many stories and news reports from NPR are woven into the text of SMWtSB. They serve as reference points for time and place. Mattilda’s attention to the sound of her book should be noted as well.

Too often with stream-of-consciousness work and genre-breaking literature, language is sacrificed for the idea. Not so with SMWtSB. Mattilda’s ear is constantly tuned into the sound and rhythm of her words, and they sound lovely. “The soundtrack of my destiny is just shake and break, take those steps every step counts. Feeling every beat, cold hands but honey oh the heat, the heat.”

Yes, yes, but what is the book about? SMWtSB is the narrative of one person’s struggle to survive in an increasingly expensive and alienating city (San Francisco.) As our hero’s body breaks down from fibromyalgia and insomnia, he tries to break down the barriers of contemporary queer culture and his own emotional blocks. Oh yes, there is romance. And yes, there is a lot of sex.

Our hero supports himself as a sex worker, but the book isn’t a collection of one-john-after-another stories. He has sex with his boyfriend. He has sex with people who are neither his clients nor his boyfriend. Though our hero may feel hopeless about sex sometimes, even swearing it off, he never loses his sense of humor. “I go to a trick, guess he’s in another world because no one answers the door. Of course I take a cab home—Rue says I turn tricks to pay for my taxi habit, but see—I proved him wrong: I don’t even turn tricks.”

Gender is fluid in this work. The pronouns of the characters shift from sentence to sentence and often the names do not clearly define boy/girl. The plot is fluid as well. It skips, leaps, tumbles, and saunters. Each chapter is solid enough to stand by itself, or be read chronologically (or out of order for that matter). It can get confusing at times, but it is always beautiful, even at its most vulnerable and grieving—especially then.

SMWtSB is a serious book. It deals with incest, drug abuse, alienation, and national imperialism. It wrestles with questions about love and connection to others. Our hero constantly confronts, provokes, and interrogates his/her life, but does not give us answers. Like life, Mattilda’s book doesn’t end with a big red bow to tie all of the loose ends together. So Many Ways to Sleep Badly is a hard ride to take, but one that you won’t want to miss.

29 July 2009

An Interview With Steve Berman

Steve Berman is a gay writer and editor who lives in New Jersey. He has edited several anthologies of gay men’s fiction, including Best Gay Stories 2008. His first novel, Vintage, A Ghost Story was a 2008 Finalist for the Andre Norton Award.

This interview was conducted in May of 2008.

Jory Mickelson: Tell me about how you got started writing and editing…

Steve Berman: I started writing as a teen. I sold my first story at seventeen. After I had sold several stories, I came up with an idea for an anthology. I wanted to put together an inspirational anthology for gay men. I contacted Toby Johnson, another writer, and our visions matched. Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit in Storytelling came out in 2006. It was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. It steamrolled and after that I started editing other anthologies.

JM: What are you currently working on?

SB: I am working on two books coming out in 2008. The first is Best Gay Stories 2008, which is an anthology of the best gay stories that were published in 2007. The second book is Wilde Stories 2008. It is a collection of the best gay fantasy, science fiction and horror stories from 2007.

I am also working on another young adult novel. It is set in the Victorian era and involves faeries. It is a gay historical fantasy. In August, a collection of my short stories is coming out, Second Thoughts: More Stories Queer and Weird.

JM: You sound busy, are you a full time writer?

SB: I have a regular nine to five job. I write human resource material for a consulting firm. I would never write full-time for myself. There are things you have to consider, health insurance for one.

JM: What are the best and the worst parts about the writing process?

SB: I love the challenge. When I am writing, I like it when I paint myself into a corner. Sometimes it doesn’t look like there is any way out or to move forward. My mind keeps working on it and then I finally figure it out. It is interesting to come up ways to solve problems that aren’t expected.

The hardest part for me is putting down the words initially. Sometimes it is very difficult to get them down and I just don’t mean when I am starting on a novel. Revising and tinkering with words after they are down is great. Expressing the initial ideas can be the hard part.

JM: What is your advice for writers, those starting out and those who have been writing for a while?

SB: For new writers, I would say, find out who you are on the page. Get a concept of your voice as an author. It takes time to figure out who you are. Be bold and try to convey as much of your own personality and perceptions on the page. Don’t just imitate someone else.

For those who have been writing for a while or have sold a few things, remember that writing is not a race. There are no prizes or winners. Don’t compare yourself to authors that are more successful. Focus on entertaining the reader. If you do this well, success will happen as a result of your writing.

JM: What are your views on gay literature in general?

SB: I think that it has become more accessible to people. You can get a queer themed book on Amazon.com and still be closeted. This is good for shy and introverted queer people as well. Having wide access to queer literature means that it is more likely to sell gay themes to a major publisher. Writing is still very commercial. A piece of writing needs to entertain or move people of any orientation, not just a gay and lesbian audience.

I am a little worried about print on demand. I own a print on demand site and know the pros and cons of the process. If you had a choice of schools, you wouldn’t send your child to one that had the least opportunities and no frills. A writer’s manuscript is their child.

I would encourage writers to exhaust all other possibilities before considering print on demand. Send your work to all of the major publishing houses. Send your work to small presses as well. As I said, I do have a print on demand, but I like playing the devil’s advocate.

JM: What are some of your own favorite books and writers?

SB: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner is one. It is a fantasy novel with gay characters. Every gay writer should read it. You can learn a lot about what an author does by reading their books. This is one of the books that I envy.

I like quirky fantasy and Zod Wallop by William Spencer is a great book. It isn’t gay, but it is a perfect contemporary fantasy novel. If I ever wrote close to the level of these two books, I would be content.

JM: Do you have any last words?

SB: Yes. If you are a writer, the most important thing you can do is become part of a community of writers. Your connections become important. Writing is a lonely craft and being part of a community helps. Join a writing group or attend a conference. Saints and Sinners is a gay literature conference that is held every May in New Orleans.

28 July 2009

An Interview With Carol Guess

Carol Guess is a writer and an associate professor of English at Western Washington University. She also teaches classes in queer studies. She is the author of several novels, collections of poetry, and a memoir. Her most recent collection of poems, Tinderbox Lawn, was released in October 2008. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.

This interview was conducted in June 2008.

Jory Mickelson: When did you begin writing and what was your first publication?

Carol Guess: I started writing when I was nine or ten years old. I wanted to write for the magazines that I read, like Cricket and later Seventeen. My first publication was in Cricket—a short story.

JM: What genres do you write in and how do they differ from one another for you?

CG: I write fiction, poetry, essays and creative nonfiction. I think about genres in matters of time. I like writing novels, but teaching takes time. I moved into poetry when I started teaching. My new book represents a hybrid of the novel and poetic forms. Each poem functions separately, but as a whole they act as a fragmented sort of novel.

JM: Who informs your work? Whose work do you go back to repeatedly?

CG: Donald Revell, Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein and Richard Siken influence me. I come back to Wallace Stephens again and again. I also read a lot of Renaissance poetry. I started out studying Renaissance drama in college. Carole Maso is a fiction writer who writes a hybrid of fiction with nonfiction in fragments. I keep returning to her work. Also, Carl Phillips.

JM: You were hired by Western Washington University to teach creative writing, but you also teach queer studies classes?

CG: I started out teaching five creative writing classes and one queer studies class. Two years ago, I began teaching half time, so now I teach two writing classes and one queer studies class every year. I am the queer studies advisor. When I was hired, I made it clear that teaching queer studies was something that I wanted to do. It was important to me coming to Western from the job that I left. I never took classes in queer studies when I was in school, so I am inventing them. I had to translate my own experiences into academic courses.

JM: Do you feel that your sexuality creates limitations or opportunities in your writing? Academically?

CG: Being a lesbian has given me an outsider’s perspective as a writer. This is a positive thing; it gives me an opportunity to see things in new ways. Academically, it can be an obstacle. Queer studies isn’t always seen as an accepted area of inquiry.

JM: Is queer studies a vocation then?

CG: Queer studies is a calling. I enjoy teaching those classes the most. The political situation for queer people has improved enormously in the decade that I have taught at Western. But there is still a long way to go. Teaching these classes is a form of activism.

JM: Tell me more about your forthcoming book, Tinderbox Lawn. How did it come about?

CG: The book is a collection of prose poetry where each poem is meant to stand on its own. As a whole, the poems have a narrative arc. It is set in Seattle and Bellingham. The issues or themes presented in the book are the tension between urban and rural life, as well as those in personal relationships. Tinderbox Lawn features a relationship between two women, but it is more about two people falling in love and falling out of love. There are a few references about the war on terror, but it isn’t a book about politics. In a way, the war on terror is the background. It becomes a static the lovers are always listening to.

I finished a book of poems in 2004. After that was published, I kept writing. I generated a bunch of material, but it was all over the place—essays, fiction, poems. Part of writing Tinderbox Lawn was sorting through hundreds of pages of work and trying to decide what it would be. I began to see small blocks of text that fit together and started paring the material down.

JM: How much of your own identity resides in your new book?

CG: It started from autobiographical material and then blurred into fiction. The identity of the lyric “I” of the poems became a fictional character. The “You” is definitely fictional.

JM: Do you find yourself categorized in certain ways as a writer by being a woman and a lesbian?

CG: I have been pegged as a “woman writer” and a “lesbian writer.” If this promotes someone to pick up my work, then it’s a positive. If not, that is a shame. With this book, I don’t feel that these categories apply. I wrote this to express a feeling, falling in and out of love. This is something that everyone has experienced. The categories of woman and lesbian still apply commercially and as a writer, I have to think about that.

JM: Where do you see GLBT literature going? What about queer publishing and the market place for queer writing?

CG: I think that queer literature is at a turning point. Queer writers and queer culture is being assimilated. The category of queer literature is very permeable now. Queer writers don’t see themselves pegged as such and heterosexual writers can pick up queer themes. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a broadening of readership for queer writing, which is what I would like to see.

JM: What is your view of “post-queer” literature?

CG: We aren’t post-queer yet. We aren’t even post-gay.

JM: So what’s next for you? What are you currently working on?

CG: That is a great question! I am working on a new book of prose poems. It has some of the same concerns as Tinderbox Lawn, but the political themes are stronger. The new work looks at the war in Iraq and government surveillance. Specifically, it focuses on how constant surveillance impacts our personal relationships.


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