Tag Archives: reading

Best of 2013: The Books

1 Jan



Ok, I know it’s 2014 (and happy New Year!) but I still need to wrap up 2013 before moving on, and the most important part is in books.   Now these are the most significant books I read in the last year, I don’t think any of them were actually published in 2013.  Hell, half the time I’m lucky if I’m reading a book from this decade.   So keeping that in mind, these are the best books I read in the last year.

1.  The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain:  This is a little bit cheating, because I’m not quite done with this book yet, however, I’m pretty close, and I am quite happy to have read it.  I thought it would be basically Mark Twain making fun of travelling, which he does, but really it’s joining one of the best minds on a tour of Europe.   Now, he’s firmly in 18th century politics, so there’s a bunch of stuff (particularly politically) that hasn’t aged the best, but what’s amazing is how little has changed at the same time.  You’ll recognize his fellow passengers, and while there’s many funny parts, he really is trying to have us take a virtual tour with him, so there’s sometimes that he just marvels at the beauty of it all.  Wonderful.

2.  Set This House in Order  By Matt Ruff:  MPD/DID is a very contraversial diagnosis, however, you really need to put this aside to read this book.  Ruff isn’t really writing about that anyway, and the biggest thing I love about this book is that while it has abuse victims as the main characters, he never makes it about that.   A wonderfully human book that is way better than it has any right being.

3.   The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Water Moers:  This german book is a storybook for adults.  Loosely written and wandering, it’s not the sort of thing that people who want a tight story woudl be into.  However, that’s why this is such a charming book, it’s a series of events in an imaginary land that just move from one thing and another.

4.  Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead Sara Gran:  I already reviewed this, but can I just say “breath of fresh air” for mystery?

5.   The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliot:  Dark and wonderful.   I already reviewed this one too, but if you’re looking for something that is John Irving-esque with a twist, this is it.

6.  The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie:  His whole trilogy is great, but this book is what really sucks you into it.   Dark as pitch humor laced with fantasy, without the silliness that fantasy often has.

7.  Crusoe’s Daughter   by Jane Gardam:  This is the most beautiful book I’ve read all year by a long shot.   Meloncholy, elegaic, going into the nature of story and freedom.   Why isn’t Jane Gardam more famous in the states?

8.  The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton:  De Botton looks into the meaning of work–he’s got one amazing mind, he’s like a living encyclopedia.   Read this to get smarter.

9.  How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler:  This is one of the few self-help books that lives up to its  name.  Most people don’t read very literately, this book teaches you how.   Anybody could pick this up and learn a thing or two.

10.  Embassytown by China Mieville:  Georgeous slice of sci-fi that is thoughtful and urgent.   If I could only build worlds with half the depth that Mieville does.

11.  The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs:   Never before has queer mental health issues been written down this concisely for gay men.   I don’t agree with everything he says, but I can say that I’ve never met a gay man who hasn’t had to deal with at least some of the issues  presented here.

12.   Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh:  I really got into mindfulness this year, and this is the best book I ran into.  Very simple and accessible, never preachy, and doesn’t promise stuff if you do what he says.   This is the best guide for westerners to get into meditation and mindful livng.

What a great year for reading.  I hope that 2014 is even better.


Book Review: Shattered Glass by Dani Alexander

27 Oct

shattered glass


So I decided to check out this m/m romance because it’s a genre that’s booming lately (there’s dozens of these things out) and I never read one before.

I’m a firm believer in appreciating any work on its own terms.  I don’t want to be like the guy who was in the mood for a western and ignorantly watched Oklahoma! and starts ranting how this is the worst western ever.   It’s one thing to evaluate Oklahoma on it’s own strengths and weaknesses, however expecting it to be something it’s not is the fault of the viewer, not the work.

So with self-published works like this, no matter the genre, you need to read it like you would watch a self-made movie, or any other self made work of art.   When they’re good, they’ll be fun, charming, but also a little rough in places.   If you’re looking for flawless prose or slick writing you are in the wrong place.   Also what I look for is some sense of personality–the reason why I like reading self-published works is that you get the real sense of the person writing this, verses pulp books cranked out of a publishing house.

While I think this book is a mixed affair, one thing that shines through and really makes me forgive the flaws, is that it’s clear that Dani Alexander is creating a work from his heart.   Honestly, at finishing this book, I felt like I had a good friend that I was really proud of for finally finishing his book.   There’s definitely a sense that he really cares about his characters and this was a labor of love for him.

I’m not going into all the details of the plot, but it’s basically Law and Order mixed with Queer as Folk and romantic comedy.    Some of it works and some of it doesn’t.  Here’s my breakdown:

The Romantic Plot–The romance between Austin and Peter is ok with a few details which kind of bug me a little.   So Austin suppressed his homosexuality for years because of the suicide of his gay friend, but one day as he’s about to get married he sees Peter and his gay switch turns to on.  While I’m not expecting a book like this to be realistic, Peter’s shift from not-gay to gay seems to be a little too effortless.   At the same time, Peter–who’s been traumatized by being a gay hustler and who normally identifies as straight, is ok with being gay just for Austin.  I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that–I know that people’s sexualities are often much more fluid than society permits, but still–am I supposed to find the fact that both these men don’t normally sleep with men for pleasure attractive?   For me, it kind of leaves a bad taste.   Other than that, their relationship is about actual love so I can give them points for that.   I got a little annoyed with the Romantic Comedy cliche of bickering then making out–because THAT’S the basis for a healthy relationship.

The Crime Plot–Serviceable.  I never was on the edge of my seat, and I couldn’t keep track of which cops were which, but it did make things happen.    This book certainly keeps its characters active–my pet peeve is a book where characters do nothing but talk at each other.

Cai–Cai is a great character, and the only one that really engaged me.  The way he spoke and acted just got to my soft side.   I also really liked his mother.

The Humor–The humor will either make it or break it for you.  I liked it, though it could get grating at points.   Each part has a Frasier style heading that’s usually a bad pun.   Humor is very individual though, so if you don’t find things like that funny, you’d best look for another book.

And yes, the plots are rickety, most of the characters flat stereotypes, the dialogue wooden, but none of that particularly bothers me–it’s part of it in fact.  I read this like I’d watch some late night movie–I’m not looking for Shakespeare here.

My one major criticism is that the book was a little too long and plotty.   Between the crime drama, the romance, Peter’s back story, Austin’s back story, the wedding, there is just too much to be invested in.  Some parts were very charming–particularly anything at Austin’s home.  However I think that many of the sub-plots could have been excised or severely shortened to allow more room for the good stuff to shine.   It comes off as cluttered.  I would also suggest cutting it by half in general–Alexander does the writing equivalent in drowning his cereal in milk–a little goes a long way.

That being said–I think Alexander is a talented writer that I want to see continue.  There were some moments where I was thinking I can’t believe that I’m getting drawn into this.   He just needs to write some more and fiddle with his recipe a little to find the right balance of plot, characterization, and romance.

Also, oddly, the Glass series has a rabid fan-base, of straight women.  Huh.  Go figure.

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.



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.

Poetry Review: Adam Zagajewski “Moths”

2 Oct

Zagajewski’s “Moths” is a wonderful poem that is really hard to speak about because it’s imagistic–it’s aim is to get a snapshot view of a moment.   Poems like this are often quite striking, but the mind does not know what to do with these simple moments, like pearls.

“Moths watched us through/the window.  Seated at the table./ We were skewered by their lambent gazes./Harder than their shattering wings.”

So this is what we know—it is night, at least a couple, but it very well might be a family, are inside, and moths are watching them.   There’s an alien feel to this poem, the moths are not normal guests, but spying on this family through the window.   Even their descriptions–these are not the normal soft fluttery creatures that come to mind with moths. Their gazes are lambent (which means glowing), and they skewer.  They shatter instead of flutter.   There’s a great sense of invasion, of being watched.

“You’ll always be outside,/past the pane.  And we’ll be here within,/more and more in.  Moths watched us/through the window, in August.”

The windowpane becomes a divider between the moths and the family.   The family keeps withdrawing farther and farther as the moths pose some sort of threat.   The threat of being noticed.   There’s a certain paranoia, a dis-ease that lives between the very deliberate words here.   And what is it that the moths represent?   A fear of nature maybe, though moths are less associated with wild nature, and more with the nighttime, of being in a lit area as the darkness fills the world.   And this light shines outwards and attracts things like moths.   It brings to mind our little worlds of safety vs. the unknown (which is what usually is the terrifying element in nearly everything), and those moths represent the scary things that come up when the light hits the darkness.   The things of the darkness travel towards the light, and if you aren’t the sort prepared to deal with these things, you withdraw even more.

That’s why their gazes glow and skewer, the reason their wings shatter not only brings the mind of shattering glass (because windows can break) but also the fact that because these creatures symbolize a threat their tiny flutters become loud out of fear.   Honestly this almost sounds like a horror movie poem, at the very beginning, before the monster shows his head.   The reason that ending “In August” works is because August would be a natural time for moths to be about (rather than January which would be quite unnatural), and also in August moths wouldn’t be around a window for need of warmth or shelter.   The moths are pursuing something, not escaping something else.



Poetry Review, Yusef Komunyakaa, “Facing It”

13 May

My black face fades,/hiding inside the black granite.   What we are seeing, through the eyes of a vet, is the Vietnam memorial.  What his race is, we don’t know, because his face is black looking into that smooth black mirror of names.

I said  I wouldn’t/dammit:  No tears.   His face fades because he is crying, or at least tearing up.  Such an odd promise, to not cry at a memorial.  I know there’s a fear of losing control, and also of not letting the thing get to you, of not letting it win.  I understand that.  Oh, but tears can be so healing.

I’m stone.  I’m flesh.  This is a marvelous line, because the man is going between stone and flesh, his resolve to not cry vs. his body’s insistence he does so.  Also the memorial is made of stone and flesh–all those names piled on each other, all those people who died, written in stone.

My clouded reflection eyes me/like a bird of prey, the profile of night/slanted against morning.  A veteran would see the world through a parted eye.  That’s the amazing thing about this poem, we are watching a man, look at words, empathizing with the memorial to words.  He’s also facing himself amidst these words, having survivor’s guilt, a living person among the ranks of the dead.

I turn this way–the stone lets me go./I turn that way–I’m inside/the Vietnam Veterans Memorial/again, depending on the light/to make a difference.  Again looking at the memorial in two different ways, he’s in the world and he’s in the wall.  He has a choice.  The names don’t.

I go down the 58,022 names,/half expecting to find/my own in letters like smoke.  His half-expectation is interesting, indicating that he doesn’t think himself better, and maybe not even luckier than those that are written there.  That maybe he kind of died too in that war.  Certainly the title “Facing It” isn’t just talking about the literal facing a wall, but also looking at the reality of the war, and the dead, and taking it in.

I touch the name Andrew Johnson:/ I see the booby trap’s white flash.  He has a memory associated with that name–and also the name is something of a trap, because it brings him back there, makes him remember the losses he had in the war.  I like the touching bringing a vision, like if he touched all these names there would be a flicker of a memory.  Like the names are magic for being written on that wall.

Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse/but when she walks away/the names stay on the wall.  He acknowledges that his experience isn’t the same as others.  To some people the names are just names.  They don’t have stories associated with them.  They remain an abstraction.  Also, he’s noticing what’s going on in the world through the reflective wall–a great metaphor for how a veteran sees the world.

Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s/wings cutting across my stare.  The world still goes on despite this fact.  And that’s what this poem is, a veteran taking the war experience and the losses and tries to make amends with the real world which still goes on happening.   In his mind the real world is almost an interruption.

The sky.  A plane in the sky.  Again seeing the world, this time something completely neutral.  The world still turns.

A white vet’s image floats/closer to me, then his pale eyes /look through mine.  I’m a window.  The eyes glancing at each other through the wall, not acknowledging that they’re looking.  Is it because of the implicit knowledge that both might have on what’s going on in each other’s heads?    He calls himself a window–completely depersonalizing himself, as if he’s still keeping himself from crying.

He’s lost his right arm, inside the stone.   To the Vet the stone is the war itself, and the white man’s arm is in there, because that stone is a testament to what has been taken.

In the black mirror/a woman’s trying to erase names:/no she’s brushing a boy’s hair.   Interesting that her action of brushing hair would seem like erasing names in the window.  In a way, isn’t doing that action, brushing someone’s hair, going on living sort of erasing the names, or at least the meaning behind them?  In the eyes of a vet it might–so while life going on is a great gift, there’s a sense of loss that comes when this list of names moves from being known people to names written in history.  What this man is facing isn’t so much the war, but also that life is moving on, that the world has not ended, and that he needs a way to make his two worlds into one.

Honestly, Komunyakaa’s poem is brilliant–showing the complex feelings of a vet in a world that forgets its wars eventually.