A Wonderful Message from an Incredibly Gifted Writer

I just today received the following message from J. H. Trumble, whose novel Just Between Us I reviewed last week. “I love you Ed Hartnett! I’m so touched by your review of this book, all my books! I worried a lot about JBU, but I know you to be a discriminating reader. So if JBU worked for you, then I am satisfied. Thank you so much!”

I cannot begin to express how flattered I was to get such a wonderful message from her. This was her third novel and I have now read all three, loving each one. If you type in J. H. Trumble in the search bar you can find my reviews of each of her works. Do yourself a favor and read at least one of these books very soon!

Background Reading for My Novel: “Just Between Us” by J. H. Trumble

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Just Between Us is the third book by J.H. Trumble that I have read in the past seven months and just like her first two she has scored another clear winner with this one. Since  my own book deals with a young gay man in his late teens, I have sought to read books with a similar theme in hopes of learning from others what for me at least works and what does not. It was this mindset that led me to read her first novel Don’t Let Me Go. Having enjoyed that so much I then read Where You Are which I enjoyed even more. Just Between Us is her most recent work. While each of her novels has a common thread of young gay men in love, the author successfully tackles very different topics in each. Don’t Let Me Go focuses on issues of gay-bashing and the challenges of trying to keep alive a relationship when two people are living more than a thousand miles apart. Where You Are dares to take on the explosive issue of student/teacher intimacy. Just Between Us chronicles the hurdles of two people being attracted to each other and then having one of them learn that he is HIV positive.

The main characters of this work are Luke Chesser and Curtis Cameron, ages 17 and 19 respectively. Luke was a major secondary character in Don’t Let Me Go. He is a high school junior and is still recovering from having his heart broken in his first romantic fling. Having an abusive, homophobic father does not help matters any. Fortunately for him his physician mom and younger brother are loving and supportive. He is a member of the school’s marching band which is a big part of his life and that helps to fill in some of life’s blank spaces. Curtis is in college but attended the same high school as Luke. After spending a good portion of his time partying in his college freshmen year he returns home and helps out as a field tech in Luke’s marching band. Unlike Luke, Curtis’ widowed dad is very accepting of his being gay as is his twin sister. The two young men soon become attracted to one another and start spending time together while postponing any sexual intimacy.

The proverbial you-know-what hits the fan when Curtis learns he is HIV positive. By now he cares deeply about Luke and is terrified that he may infect him if they have sex. The remainder of the story focuses on how these conflicted lovers and others around them deal with the news. Having been a sexually active gay man before and during the Age of AIDS and having watched scores of friends succumb to the disease, I fully appreciate what devastating news this normally is for someone. While HIV/AIDS is today not the death sentence that thirty years ago most people viewed it to be, it is a terrifying and life-altering experience for those who contract it and the people who love them. The author does a superior job depicting Curtis’ coping with the news and the stages of grief he experiences: denial, anger, depression and eventual acceptance. The reaction of Luke and others is likewise very believable. The author once again tackles a difficult issue and avoids creating clichéd characters and situations. This is a very moving, at times heart-breaking and at other times triumphal story. Just as she did in Where You Are, the story is told from the perspective of the two main characters and the technique works as effectively in this book as it did in the earlier one.

Rereading my review of her previous works, I see that what impressed me about those stories is much of what I so enjoyed reading this one. Of Don’t Let Me Go I wrote: “a very sweet, tender coming-of-age novel but not one that is overly sweet, throwing in enough drama and darkness to make it all seem very real. All of the characters have their flaws… He is impulsive and foolish at times and certainly does his share of dumb things. There are times when I wanted to kick him in the butt and other times when I wanted to tell him to stop being so insecure.” Of Where You Are I commented: “He is tormented trying to figure out what is the right thing to do, struggling with the collision course of wanting to be there for Robert, the growing sexual attraction he and Robert are feeling for one another, and his terror of where all of this may lead.”  Except for proper names, the comments are just as  true about this work. That in no way suggests the author is somehow using a cookie-cutter approach to her writing but rather that she has the rare gift to make her stories and characters appealing and believable. Not wanting to spoil too much of the plot I will simply say there were several times when I became very choked up reading this book and my eyes started filling with tears. That does not happen often when I am reading and I can only say thank you ever so much Ms. Trumble for your incredible writing talent and for giving me hours of enjoyable reading. You are a true inspiration for me in my efforts. For anyone who has not read any of her books put all three at or near the top of your To Read list. You are in for some phenomenal works. And please, please another book soon I hope!

Background Reading for My Novel: “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

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Attempting to review a novel as legendary as The Picture of Dorian Gray is challenging to say the least but I will do my best to do just that. Noted more for his plays and poems, this work by Oscar Wilde was his only novel. When first published in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, the story sent shock waves through the literary world and was viciously attacked as immoral most notably for its homoerotic and hedonistic themes. Wilde attempted to quiet the attacks by substantially revising the story and adding more background, expanding the original work from thirteen to twenty chapters before its 1891 book publication. The revisions did little though to quiet the outrage. The edition I read was the one published in 1891 which is the most widely read version.

The general storyline of course is well-known. It follows the life of a handsome young man who has his Faustian wish fulfilled that a recent painting of him will age while he himself remains physically young and attractive. As Gray’s life slides further and further into debauchery and crime, the portrait becomes increasingly grotesque while he remains eternally beautiful. It does not take much imagination to realize that the artist Basil Hallward is clearly infatuated with Dorian although there is no sexual contact between the two in the novel. It is through Basil that Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton who advocates a hedonistic lifestyle to Dorian, suggesting to the impressionable young man that beauty and satisfying one’s desires are the only things really worth pursuing in life. This is the trigger that changes Dorian’s attitude and behavior. The two become close friends and remain so throughout the story.

Wilde once commented that the novel’s three main characters contain much of himself: Basil is the person Wilde perceived himself to be, Lord Henry represents the public view of him and “Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” The story itself is incredibly fascinating and Wilde does a superb job playing with the age-old fantasy of eternal youth. Some of the best lines in the book are the pithy, cynical reflections of Lord Henry. Two excellent examples: “Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.” Also: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

The one criticism I have of the book is that at times I found the prose to be a bit too flowery but in part I am sure that is a reflection of the writing style of the era. Chapter 11 for example is almost entirely a long, drawn-out recounting of all the excesses to which Dorian indulges himself describing endlessly the colors and textures of the objects with which he surrounds himself. Eventually I found myself simply skimming through this chapter because I started thinking “OK Oscar, I get the picture. Can we now get on with the story?” My guess is that this was a part of expanded background Wilde felt necessary to add to the 1891 publication to quiet his critics. It has been suggested by scholars that Wilde would probably want us to read the work as it was originally written since we are in a more permissive forward-looking time than the repressive Victorian world in which he himself lived. Since the original unedited version is now available I may do just that.

Eventually of course Wilde was subjected to a very public trial for his immoral homosexual lifestyle and sentenced to two years’ hard labor for his “crimes”, a sentence that would break him physically and emotionally and contribute to his early death. This is an important novel and one very well-written. It is a classic example of Gothic fiction, much as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe are. Thank you Oscar for this work. I am so sorry I did not get to stop by and pay my respects to you during my recent visit to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef0162fd1648fb970d-600wi

Background Reading for My Novel: “The Lost Language of Cranes” by David Leavitt

The Lost Language of Cranes

What an incredible book to launch my 2014 reading! First published in 1986, The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt is an intense, powerful, well-written study of an intellectual middle-age couple and their grown son. Set in Manhattan in the 1980’s, each of the three main characters has kept secrets from one another for a long time, and the story traces the need to finally reveal those secrets and the consequences each faces for doing that.

Rose and Owen Benjamin have been married for twenty-seven years and live quiet, mundane lives on Manhattan’s East Side. Rose is a copy editor for a small NYC publishing house. She is a very structured person and her work is the centerpiece of her life since her home life is so passionless. Her secret is that of a five-year affair she had in the distant past with a co-worker. Owen had a promising academic career long ago but gave it up and settled for a drab position as the director of a private Manhattan boy’s school, a position that leaves him unfulfilled. The boredom of his professional and home life is relieved only by his visit every Sunday afternoon to a gay porno theater which he has frequented for many years. The couple’s lives are further complicated by the fact that they soon may be forced to leave their apartment of many years due to a proposed condo-conversion.

Their only child and twenty-five year old son Philip has his own apartment on the West Side and works midtown as an editor of romance novels. He has fallen in love with Elliott Abrams whom he has known for about a month. Philip is painfully insecure and since Elliot is his first love in a long time he is overly eager to cling to him which alienates Elliot. Phillip is also captivated by the fact that Elliot was raised by two gay men in a literary and bohemian world, an environment totally alien from his own experience. While he is out as a gay man to his friends and co-workers, Philip has never revealed his sexuality to either of his parents even though he has known since a young teenager that he was gay. Now he feels a need to tell them since he has finally fallen in love. His decision to come out to his parents has unforeseen consequences, most acutely his father’s need to finally acknowledge that he too is gay.

This is a book to be enjoyed on many levels. Leavitt’s rich and rewarding story draws the reader into the hearts and minds of its characters. It is an excellent portrayal of different relationships: lovers, parent/child, husband/wife, friends, roommates. The story is also an engrossing account of keeping secrets and the terrible toll that can have on a person physically and emotionally. The author raises valid questions. Is it always best to tell the truth or should some things be left unspoken?  Is the burden lifted from the bearer of the secret simply transferred to the person learning the secret? Leavitt does not answer these questions but raises them in the reader’s mind for consideration. He also shows what a horrible price one pays for living in the closet. Reading and understanding Owen’s many years of secrecy, shame and guilt is painful and his desire to touch and be touched by someone for whom he feels passion is very poignant. Additionally throughout the story there is an overriding theme of loneliness and what one can or should do to try to overcome it that goes beyond just the three main characters.

The specter of AIDS looms through the story. Written at the time of the introduction of the cataclysmic AIDS era there is the fear and dread of contracting the disease running through the minds of many of the characters, a sense they are being forced into monogamy to simply survive. “Now monogamy was in fashion, but it had taken on the status of a safety tactic, an unappetizing but necessary catastrophic measure, like one of those World War II recipes for stretching precious rationed meat. ‘Find ten buddies and agree to fuck only with them,’ Phillip had read in a porn magazine early in the crisis. Then ten was reduced to five, five to two…fear became an indirect route to monogamy and, sometimes, to happiness.”

Before reading the novel I was intrigued by its unusual title and assumed it was a reference to the long-legged and long-necked birds. Instead though it is a reference to research being conducted by Elliot’s roommate Jerene, clearly the strongest and most powerfully drawn of the secondary characters. A black lesbian who was coldly rejected by her adoptive parents once they learned of her sexuality, she is busy doing research on lost languages. She stumbles upon the bizarre story of a neglected two-year old boy who related to and imitated the movement and sound of the mechanical cranes he saw from his tenement window rather than that of his biological single mom. The boy becomes the Crane-Child and when he is removed from them what he shared is forever lost.

This is a perfectly slow-paced novel, just the right tempo to paint incredible characters and draw the reader into their lives. Never did I feel it was moving too slowly; it held my interest throughout. As I am writing this it has dawned on me that the story in some ways reminds me of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which like this novel dealt with dark secrets and the consequences of revealing those secrets. I was totally captivated by this book and plan to read more by this talented author.

One final comment. The book was adapted by the BBC into a made-for-TV movie in 1991. The one significant change was the setting, London rather than New York. I caught a glimpse of it on YouTube and from what I saw other than the setting it appeared very faithful to the book.

 

Background Reading for My Novel: “Remembrance of Things I Forgot” by Bob Smith

Remembrance of Things I Forgot: A Novel

Last summer I read Remembrance of Things I Forgot by Bob Smith and am now finally getting around to reviewing it. The opening line from the book sums up the essence of the story very well. “It’s safe to say your relationship is in trouble if the only way you can imagine solving your problems is by borrowing a time machine.” The year is 2006 and comic book dealer John Sherkston has just broken up with Taylor Esgard, his boyfriend of fifteen years. The two are political opposites: John a liberal Democrat and Taylor a Log Cabin Republican. Taylor is a physicist and on the same day as their breakup he has announced that he has invented a time machine for the U.S. government. As the two are meeting with Vice President Cheney whom John despises and Taylor admires, John enters the time machine and accidentally transports himself back to 1986. John realizes he may actually have the chance to change history while there and quickly launches a whirlwind of activities to do just that. First he connects with his younger somewhat naive self  “Junior”.  Junior begins flirting with the older John who promptly tells him “I’m you, only with less hair and problems you can’t imagine.” He and Junior then meet a younger Taylor and John hopes he can intervene to ensure that the two young men have a happier future together. His most challenging goals though are to save his sister and father from their downward spirals as well as take steps to prevent Bush and Cheney from ascending to power. As the plot progresses John and the reader learn that given the opportunity to change history one has a good chance of just finding a new way to mess things up. The story is a comical, edgy, entertaining and fast-paced tale of time travel that for the most part succeeds.

Smith first attained recognition as a stand-up comedian and was the first openly gay comedian to appear on The Tonight Show. As my brief summary suggests this satirical novel is a showcase for the author’s comedic talent.  He peppers his story with a steady stream of funny lines and incidents. A good example of that involves John’s first meeting with Cheney, the story’s arch-villain, who after being introduced by Taylor, extends his hand to John. “There was an awkward moment as I decided what to do. I shook his hand. This is how people end up accomplices to murder, I thought. They just wanted to be supportive or they’re overly polite and don’t want to cause a scene.”

I found the humor very strong through the first half of the book and quickly became absorbed in the novel. But as the story progressed I found myself less entertained by it. Perhaps this was because it was fresh and new at the start and then seemed repetitive after a while. I think where this story works best is the personal story of John’s efforts to save his sister and father from self-destruction and his hopes to make the John/Taylor relationship survive. As someone who regards the eight year era of inept Bush and evil Cheney as one of the bleakest times in American history, I was initially amused and chuckled at the jokes being made at their expense. Eventually though Dubya and Darth Vader became too cartoon-like and as much as I loathe the two and enjoy seeing them skewered, the over-emphasis of their characters drags down the overall success of the book. The plot itself got weaker and even for a farcical science-fiction tale it got a bit too outlandish by the book’s end. Overall my impression of the book was positive but I did not feel it lived up to its full potential.