Archive | October, 2013

Book Review: Trebor Healey, A Horse Named Sorrow

14 Oct

A horse named sorrow


A Horse Named Sorrow is the kind of book that I love, while at the same time being fully aware of its weaknesses.    If someone came up to me and said that they couldn’t finish it, I would completely understand.  However, I have to applaud Healey for trying for something more than the average gay novel tends to.  While this is a good (but flawed) novel, I have no doubt that Healey has a great novel in him and will be looking forward to further reading.

AHNS sets us up in San Francisco in the early 90’s.  This is not the queer wonderland that we so often see, but a worrisome wasteland filled with disease and death.  The AIDS crisis is going full swing, and the new medications haven’t come out yet, so there’s a state of unrest.   Seamus falls in love with Jimmy, who has AIDS and dies from it.   Seamus then goes on a road trip on Jimmy’s bike with the intent of leaving Jimmy’s ashes in Buffalo–where Jimmy came from.   He follows Jimmy’s map and tracks his journey backwards one stop at a time.

From Pilgrim’s Progress onward, every journey is ultimately a spiritual one.   One thing I loved about this book is its emphasis on the spiritual–Seamus is searching for meaning after his whole life has fallen apart, and this quest is the central story of AHNS.    He meets several people on the road, most notably Eugene, a mute Indian, and his uncle Louis, amidst their own journey.

Healey’s language is rich–so rich that you don’t so much read this book as dream it–sometimes a little too rich here and there.  I don’t mind heightened language when the subject deserves it, and the subject here–grief–certainly does.    The biggest theme we have here is transition, Seamus’s journey, the multiple descriptions of the BART, the blue truck, the bicycle–even the focus on the shifting landscape as Seamus heads east leads one to a sense of change and desolation all at once.  Everyone around him seems disconnected–the people who want to tell him their stories as he hitches rides, the waitresses, the people at the diners.   All are either stuck or aimlessly drifting, with little sense of direction.

The other theme here is speechlessness.  Seamus’s actions come from bearing a grief too large to utter, he cannot speak, but only can act.  Eugene doesn’t speak, he’s completely mute, but in his silence provides Seamus some direction.  We enter a world of symbols and pictures, items so much more expressive than literal words.

The thing I love about this novel is it’s greatest flaw–this novel is loose–its associative structure, its heavy reliance on flashbacks, the random details that pepper the story, they’re all evocative, but sometimes they’re a bit much.   There’s a few too many dream sequences, and Healey’s use of stock-phrases, especially “backasswards” can get a little grating as they’re repeated beyond meaning.   However the looseness fits the meaning, we are on a journey of a young man seeking direction, it’s going to be a bit loose and baggy, and odd little things will get pregnant with meaning.  Healey also gets the mindstate of grief spot-on–Seamus is in pain, but he’s not completely shut down, he can’t even begin to speak, and it’s a good way through the book before he even allows himself to really cry.

All in all I find this book a wonderful slow read, that shows the humanity in its gay characters without becoming patronizing or victimy.   It’s georgeously sad, and I highly recommend it for those who aren’t looking for a thrillride, or something naughty.   That’s the best thing about this book–it does not fall to the tropes that most gay male fiction tends to (outside the classics of course).   We have a full spectrum of emotion, and while the characters are all gay, they are rounded characters with more to them than just that.




Albums Worth Listening to: Rene Aubry, Steppe

12 Oct




Rene Aubry is a soundtrack composer that I’ve found very interesting lately.   Soundtrack composer isn’t the best description for him, for he also writes music for puppet shows and modern dance as well as other projects.  However, he’s too accessible to be called art music, and he’s certainly trying to do more than be a modern classical composer.   There’s a lot of composers I don’t like–because their music is always hung on the hook of another work, and while I think it’s perfectly adequate for that purpose, it’s not very interesting to listen to without the movie/dance/whatever that goes along with it.

Aubry manages to get beyond that so that his albums are complete works in themselves.   Steppe comes of as a theme album focusing on horses–even though it’s called steppe–which gives it a grasslandsy vibe.   He has an interesting combination of synthesized and organic instrumentation which gives an “everything but the kitchen sink” sort of feel, while still being melodic.   Each song is 5 minutes or less, and he plays heavily with counterpoint layering theme after theme on top of each other, setting up a horsehoof rhythm in all the songs but a couple of slower numbers.   Since quite a few of the songs fade in and fade out, we’re left with an impression of different things passing us by, ideas running, walking, gliding like dream horses.   He also uses the sounds of waves, running water, a whip, whispers, banjo, piano, mandolin, accordion, guitar and nearly every other instrument imaginable.

These soundscapes are luxurious and exotic, each bringing you to a new imaginary place–the effect is very much like Air with less singing, a fantasia of slow still places.    More interesting than ambient, less flaky than new age, less structured than classical–Aubry find a nice balance for a relaxing soundtrack.

Pop Culture Friday: Wake Me Up, Gravity, I’m Gone Edition

11 Oct

1.    Wake Me Up by Avicii–I really like Avicii, though this is not my favorite song.  I’ve noticed a new trend in pop music moving away from dance music and towards a folkier sound, a greater earnestness.   Mostly I applaud this, because it’s far more interesting than some of the other stuff, and after the high tech bleep blop years of the last 10 years it’s nice to see things that are earthier and simpler.   However, this song still shows its pop roots, particularly in the video which has the same overbearing product placement, and a concept that’s either dumb or simple which ever way you go about it.   These two girls live in a redneck town and have tattoos that look like play symbols.   The townsfolk (who are all ugly) don’t like them.  The teenage girl goes to the city, meets a bunch of attractive people with the same tattoo and goes to an Avicii concert.  She returns to get her little sister, because they’ve found a place where they belong.   It’s a little manipulative–playing off everybody’s desire to belong someplace, even though belongingness is not reality.  On top of that, I don’t imagine the place I would belong as being filled with people just like me.   In fact, one could argue that she moved to a place where she simply becomes the townsfolk there, and someone else will be excluded.   The “Wake Me Up” lyrics seem to be about wanting to sleep through the difficult years until you are adult enough to chart your own course.   The funny thing is that this is an adolescent view on adulthood, because most adults are no more able to freely do whatever they want than kids–they just have different limitations.    There’s a new theme recently about longing to find your crew, your tribe, real people and real experiences–the longings of a generation who have lived most of their lives behind a computer screen.   It’s interesting, and though I am a bit critical of it, it’s still way better than most pop fare.

2.  Gravity–I already reviewed this movie, but watch it for God’s sake.   You won’t be sorry.

3.  Gone–by James Patterson–Patterson is a pulp thriller writer that has written dozens of books, this is number six in a series.  Here, the detective Michael Bennett has to go into witness protection with his 10 adopted children, as a terrorist kingpin in a white suit kills a bunch of people.   Wow.  I have no intention of reading this, but 10 adopted children?   That’s a lot to hide–I mean did they move him across the country?   Is it like 7th heaven with crime?  I don’t like thrillers because they reinforce suburban fears about strangers walking in and destroying your life, which, yes, can happen, though much bigger problems usually happen through people you know (just saying.)

Well America, your book is kinda blah, but the movie and the song?  No complaints here!  Keep ’em comin!


Art Review: Ikenobo Yuki by Virginia Poundstone

10 Oct

ikenobo yuki


Virginia Poundstone plays with mixed media that combines the natural with the unnatural in strange ways.  One thing this piece doesn’t show is that this is about counter height which is much more impressive than this image (which makes it seem about palm-sized) belies.

Yuki Ikenobo, in real life, is a headmaster of a holy order of flower arranging.   I’m not about to get into all the details about it, but it’s at least five hundred years old, and in a recent interview Ikenobo talked about bringing their arrangements (which are beautiful) to reflect modern tastes.    I find this idea perplexingly odd–I mean to me a religious order would create something that wouldn’t cater to human fashion.   However, since flower arrangements are always temporary I suppose change is part of their nature.  Another thing: Ikenobo means “to bring flowers to life.”

Poundstone’s flower arrangement is NOT temporary–it’s a big print glued to a stone wall.   More of the print turns to ribbons on the top, vaguely set in an organic arrangement.   What’s interesting is that it has all the trademarks of flower arrangement, with none of the naturalness of one.    Aren’t the ribbons in a sort of flower arranging shape?  Isn’t the image of flowers?  Isn’t this purposely arranged?   Why does it look more like a radio than a bouquet?

And what’s striking is this sculpture is just as much “alive” as a flower arrangement—after all, flowers usually are dead, and this is an image of living plants.     Yes, I can hear you say, but this isn’t it–this doesn’t bring flowers to life.

And yes, I say, you are right, but isn’t this how many people experience nature?   In fact how many people seem to want it to be?  Here there will be no rotting, it’s set at a comfortable ratio.  It certainly could be useful–I mean the counter could hold things if you like, or be a greeting counter for a bored desk worker at a posh hotel or something.    Isn’t it nice and safe, like looking at something through a computer screen?   Everything set in very stable looking blocks.

And that’s the thought here–the thought of permanence vs. impermanence.   How fickle our idea of beauty is–and how our idea of “natural” vs. “unnatural” is completely imaginary.  After all, a bouquet is a completely unnatural arrangement of flowers that looks good because we’ve been taught to expect certain things from a bouquet.    Heck, half the time bouquets have flowers that would never grow together.

Wow, Poundstone certainly knows how to pack a concept.   This is the art that I like–that which communicates something–and of course Poundstone is not just talking about flower arranging, but the place of all art.   What is it for?   What’s interesting about both art and humankind is they are the only two things in this universe that has to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying their existences.   Why is that?

What I would like to think is that Poundstone read the same article that I did and thought “you want a modern flower arrangement, here’s a modern arrangement for you.”

Movie Review: Gravity

9 Oct


This movie is so good that I’m afraid to watch it again lest I start to notice flaws the second time.

This is the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that I have nothing to say negative about it.   Even movies that I think are good generally have a few bits that are iffy, but Gravity doesn’t.  In fact, the only criticism I’ve seen having to do with this film is how several of the events are not scientifically accurate, which to me is no big deal because what movie ever is scientifically accurate?  (I’d like to have those scientifically accurate critics watch something like Star Wars, god their heads would spin over that.)

I’m not going to do spoilers for this one, because the mystery is part of it.  However I’m going to say what I think this film did right.

1)  The story comes straight from the characters:  Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a doctor on her first space flight, George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski–a veteran astronaut on his last flight.     Rather than just take these two characters and have stuff happen to them (which is almost every other movie out there), the story happens in part because of the characters–the tension between the individuals and their environment IS the story.  What’s most interesting is Clooney and Bullock start out as their stock characters—Bullock is basically the woman from Speed, and Clooney is basically George Clooney, but as disaster after disaster happens, we see those facades fall off, and find what the people are underneath.   This is the biggest part of the characters that wows me–they act like regular people.

2)  The effects are so good that you don’t notice them:    Every scene will pop your eyes out, and it doesn’t matter if you see the 3d version or the flat one, it’s the same, the movie just looks fantastic.  However it’s also inobtrusive–a lot of action flicks have a tendency to wear their effects on their sleeves, and it can be a real distraction–just as the plot should come from the characters, the action should come from the plot–we don’t need things just shoehorned in to give the audience a buggy ride.   Also, there’s a huge tendency to make things in movies larger than life.  It actually has a deadening effect on the audience, because it emphasizes how not real the movie is.   Gravity does not do this.   

3)  Gravity is not afraid to have quiet moments.   That’s one big criticism about mainstream movies lately–they’re so concerned about having stuff happen all the time that it all falls flat.  One cannot have a whole 120 minute movie be one long climax from beginning to end–it just gets exhausting.  Gravity has the buildup and release.

4)  Gravity is not insulting to the audience’s intelligence.   Nor is it fake-smart like Inception.

5)   The score is menacingly gorgeous    I’ve never thought the sounds of jet engines and beeping could be so beautiful.   Like everything else in this movie, the music rises and falls, as a part of the whole affair.

6)   Clooney and Bullock act the hell out of this one.   Even more amazing because for a good bit of this movie you only see the parts of their faces that a spacesuit would show.   There is a solidness beneath them.  Bullock in particular amazes me here, like she dug deep and found something new just for this film.

7)   Wins and Losses are earned. Rather than just given.   Who wins and who loses isn’t always fair, but these characters have got to fight for everything they’ve got.    The audience really feels what the characters are doing.

8)  Gravity rewards close watching, but does not bang the audience over the head with obvious symbolism or preaching.   In fact the biggest message is the resilience of the human spirit.

9)  I really felt changed by this film.  This is completely subjective, but the film brought forth ideas that felt new and resonant.   This isn’t movie-by-the-numbers.  Nor is this a movie that is impressed by its own smartness.  Gravity focuses squarely on the audience and never lets up.

10)  Cuaron is a genius.  He produced, directed, and edited this movie.  This movie could have so easily been terrible, and that’s the most impressive part–when the elements are so minimalistic, they have to be nearly perfect to hold up.  Gravity is so close to perfect that it’s nearly terrifying.

Book Review: The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs

7 Oct

velvet rage


I don’t usually review nonfiction, but this is a book that you’ll either love or hate.  Basically it’s a self-help book for gay men, and the reactions online tend to either be “It is the most important book for gay men ever!” or “I don’t identify with these men at all, this is clearly speaking from a position of a gay man that’s out of date!”  (Actually the second group doesn’t usually say this so politely.)

I’m pretty positive on this book, however, I think it needs to be read with the right eyes.   See, straight kids get quite a lot of guidance down the road of life, often more than they really want, but there’s loads of people doling out advice to them.   Gay men typically don’t get this sort of support, even when they come from loving families, unless they’re raised by other gay people, there’s nobody around to show them the ropes, and explain to them the tricks as to how to have a happy life.

What this really is, is the advice that you never got from the gay dad you didn’t have.   To be clear, while I believe that Downs is speaking from his experience as a therapist for gay men, I don’t think of this book as a clinical guidebook.  I don’t think Downs claims this himself, but one of the biggest criticisms that I’ve seen towards this book is criticizing this like this was supposed to be a therapeutic model, which it most certainly is not.

Why I think this book is so important is that it deals with the issues of shame and validation that manifest themselves uniquely in gay men.  Even if you are a gay man who doesn’t have these issues, chances are you’ve gotten close to those who have.   This book does not claim that gay men are victims because of this–what it states is that because of shame and the need for validation, certain patterns emerge that can be broken if you are conscious of them.

What Downs emphasizes, and what I agree with wholeheartedly, is that coming out is not the end of the journey, it’s just the beginning, and gay men have to make a journey towards authentic living once they’ve taken the leap.

I have two criticisms of this book.  First I think his three stages are a bit hokey and very broad.   There’s a grain of truth–most gay men start out closeted (stage one), then they come out and overcompensate (stage two), and then balance themselves and become an individual (stage three).  However, I’m skeptical that things are always this clear cut–most personal journeys are not in straight lines.

Second, his examples are a bit stereotypish.   There’s the men who sleep around and party all the time, the ones who want the perfect house and a bunch of things, the ones who will not open up to others.  We’ve heard these stories before, about how all these things turn out empty.  However, I am not any of those men.

But, then there’s the other situations–the relationships that end abruptly with no explanation, the difficulty in getting close to others, the thin line between honesty and abrasiveness.   These are lessons we all could learn.

My suggestion is to read through this with an open mind, and pick and choose what is useful to you.  I really like how Downs speaks to gay men, as a gay man, with respect and frankness without pandering.   The last bit of the book has a bunch of suggestions for how to live more authentically, and some of them I’ve taken him up on.

All in all, I recommend this book.  Even if you disagree with every page, it makes you think, and it makes you look at yourself.

Presidential Review: Chester A Arthur

6 Oct

chester a arthur


Well, there’s one thing that’s certain–Chester A Arthur wins the presidential facial hair award.   Actually, he’s quite topical these days, and not just because beards are a hipster thing lately (Arthur would be the coolest!)  but because his story is one of a Republican party that was split into two factions, the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds.   The division was over the question of the spoils system–the Stalwarts felt that they should have the right to position their political allies and reward supporters whatever way they saw fit, while the Half-Breeds were against this.   Democrats were against this too, however since the Civil War Democrats hadn’t exactly been able to be a threat to the presidency.

Garfield was technically neither, he was an outsider, but he put Chester A Arthur as his vice president because the stalwarts had most of the money.    Garfield and Arthur did not get on very well–in fact their relationship was rather chilly to say the least.   But Garfield got shot, and Arthur became president.

And because of the whole Guiteau incident, Arthur, a complete supporter of the spoils system, ended up being the man who ended it.   To give you an idea how knee deep he was in the political machine, years earlier, Rutherford B Hayes fired Chester A Arthur from his post for allowing civil service members to be involved with political activities, even though Hayes had expressly forbidden it.

However, after the whole Guiteau affair, the country was very sick of machine politics, and were crying for change.   Also, it didn’t help that Guiteau initially implicated Arthur in Garfield’s death over the whole spoils system issue.   While it was very clearly untrue, Arthur could hardly just pack his cabinet with stalwarts.   In fact he begged the members of Garfield’s cabinet to stay at least until congress reconvened in the fall.   Most didn’t.

In any case, he (with Congress) ended up passing the Pendleton Act, which requires people pass tests to show that they are capable to hold their positions, and be hired by an independent group that holds no political positions themselves.   The system is not perfect, but it was enough to end patronage on a national level at any rate.

Unfortunately, other than the Pendleton Act which Arthur had no choice but to back, he didn’t do all that much as president.   He tried to grow the Republican party in the south by diverting funds to independent parties, but it didn’t work, and ended up disenfranchising black Americans even more.  As for Native Americans–he started switching them to private land ownership rather than reservations, which ended up getting sold to white developers and disenfranchising them even more.

At any rate Hayes was only a one term president–the political machines weren’t keen on picking him up again, and Hayes was very ill anyway with Kidney disease.  In fact he died just a year after leaving.  It wouldn’t have mattered anyway as the Republican’s internal conflicts caused them to lose power for the next couple of rounds.

Next we get the best president of the Guilded Age (which is sort of like being the prettiest girl in the leper colony, but whatever) Grover Cleveland!