“Something Like Summer” by Jay Bell

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Something Like Summer is the first work by Jay Bell that I have read; I am certain I will be savoring more of his books in the future. I read this six months ago during a particularly stressful and painful time for me, when one of my two dogs was missing for four weeks. It was actually just what I needed at the time; something light, entertaining, humorous as well as poignant. It went a long way in taking my mind off the melodrama in my own life. After spending sometimes 8 to 10 hours looking for my girl Tink and coming home empty-handed and depressed, curling up with this book was a welcome relief. It was the perfect choice. FYI: the missing Tink saga had a happy ending and she is lying five feet from me as I write this.

Although pegged as a YA novel, as someone certainly not a young adult (I am two generations removed from that stage of life) I found this to be both delightful and engrossing. This is the very touching story of first love, of Ben Bentley and Tim Wyman who meet in high school and whose lives become intertwined over the next twelve years. Tim, the new kid in town from a well-to-do,  conservative, religious (translation: homophobic) family, is the classic jock, albeit a closeted one. Ben is an out-and-proud gay teenager who because of his willingness to live his life openly is subjected to ridicule at school and has only a small circle of friends. When Ben first sets eyes on Tim it is lust at first sight and he soon is going out of his way to be around him as much as possible. This obsession eventually leads to Ben colliding into Tim, injuring Tim seriously enough that he needs to have someone help care for him. Since Tim’s parents are out-of-town for an extended period when this happens, Ben hits the jackpot and becomes Tim’s nursemaid. The two soon become good friends and a romance starts to blossom. However because Tim is not comfortable with his same-sex longings, the two eventually split only to meet again years later. By now Ben has been in a long-term relationship with Jace, a flight attendant. Life becomes complicated. Time for me to stop before spoiling any more of the story.

I found both Ben and Tim to be believable, likeable and yes definitely flawed and at times immature. When either one made bad choices or decisions, I was temporarily disappointed and annoyed but soon rooting for him again. Ben is inclined to act first and think later which at times gets him into a world of trouble. Tim on the other hand is more deliberate in his approach and is capable of Machiavellian behavior, most clearly demonstrated late in the book. Jace, the pivotal third major character, is the quintessential knight in shining armor, and the love he displays for Ben when Tim reintroduces himself will make anyone with a sense of decency cheer him on. All three characters learn as most of us do in the course of our lives that love is usually messy, complicated and not very easy, especially once one gets past the puppy love stage.

The tale is told through the eyes of Ben although the author’s follow-up book Something Like Winter is Tim’s accounting of their relationship. I very much look forward to reading that work soon. It is always interesting to see a different perspective on events and relationships. Sometimes this is done within the same book but I think in the right hands it is more fascinating and effective to read the one viewpoint, draw your own conclusions, and then begin afresh through another set of eyes. For me the best example of where this was accomplished so successfully was in Anne Rice’s great classics, Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, two of my all-time favorite novels. While either book individually tells a great story, after reading Louis’ account of his stormy and passionate relationship with Lestat, the second book puts the events of their lives in a very different light. I have a hunch Mr. Bell will not let me down with his sequel to this very satisfying book.

An interesting footnote is that the book is now being adapted for the big screen. Shooting is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2015. You can read more about it here. www.somethinglikesummer.com/  I eagerly look forward to seeing the film.

 

” Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann

Death in Venice (Dover Thrift Editions) (Paperback) ~ Thomas Man... Cover Art

In January 2013 I read Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin’s brilliant 1956 novel. The tragic story set in Paris of a doomed love affair between two men has been rated by the Publishing Triangle as #2 on its list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels of all time. Thomas Mann’s classic Death in Venice, first published in 1912 in his native Germany, was the only work to receive a higher rating. I added Mann’s work to my To Read List and recently got around to reading it. More a novella than a novel, it was a welcome break from the many 500-600 page works I have recently tackled.

As the title would suggest this too is a tale with an unhappy ending and like Giovanni’s Room deals with a doomed love affair or more precisely an obsession. The central character is Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous German author in his fifties. Despite his fame and good fortune he is emotionally starved and decides a vacation is in order. He initially goes to Pula in modern-day Croatia but soon decides that a trip to Venice is what he needs. After settling into his hotel on the island of Lido, at dinnertime he notices an aristocratic Polish family. He is particularly struck by the beautiful fourteen year old son whom he likens to a Greek sculpture. Over the next few weeks he regularly sees the boy who he learns is named Tadzio. He soon becomes obsessed with seeking the boy out, wherever he may be. While Aschenbach is preoccupied with following Tadzio everywhere, he becomes increasingly aware that there seems to be a health hazard lurking in the city. Not wanting to spoil the story any further I will refrain from discussing any more of the plot. Just bear in mind the title of the work.

One little bit of trivia that I found quite interesting is that Mann’s widow in 1974 revealed that the story was in fact inspired by an actual holiday that she and Mann took in Venice in the summer of 1911. They stayed at the same hotel, the Grand Hôtel des Bains, where Aschenbach and Tadzio are lodging in the novel. While there Mann spotted a Polish family with a strikingly attractive ten-year old boy. While Mann allegedly did not pursue the young boy as Aschenbach does, he was fascinated by him and spoke about him quite often. Mann’s diaries released in 1975 revealed that he struggled with his bisexuality throughout his life.

I cannot really say I enjoyed this classic work; more accurately I would say I appreciated it. Even though I did not read it in its original German language, it was clear to me that Mann has a clear mastery of the written word. The plot itself was quite interesting and having been to Venice twenty years ago I was able to visualize the city as Mann was describing it. This is not an easy work to read and it is quite dry at times. Since I was reading an English translation it may be that I was not reading the best version. That’s one possible explanation for why I was not as enamored with the work as Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Mann also extensively references ancient Greek culture and mythology in the story and since I have read nothing by the ancient Greek writers I have a very limited understanding of that nation’s culture & history. I am certain that if I were better read in the writings of that era my enjoyment of this book would have been much greater. I certainly cannot fault Mann for my limited knowledge. Since this is a short book I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in reading a work by an author with an incredible writing skill.

Should you be interested in reading my comments about Giovanni’s Room , just click on the following link.   https://eahartnett.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=208&action=edit

“How Long Has This Been Going On?” by Ethan Mordden

How Long Has This Been Going On? by Ethan Mordden is an ambitious, sweeping and panoramic 600 page epic novel that traces LGBT history over a 40+ year span through the lives of a broad cast of characters. The story opens in 1949 at Thriller Jill’s, a Los Angeles gay nightclub where patrons needed to be very discreet; it concludes with the 1991 New York City Gay Pride Parade. Along the way, the story takes the reader to San Francisco, small-town Minnesota and New Hampshire, and of course covers the 1969 Stonewall riots and AIDS.

I came out as a gay man in 1976 and have certainly seen a huge attitudinal change toward gay men and lesbians in the mindset of American culture during my life. I am also old enough to know how repressive American culture was to the LGBT community during the post World War II era and for many years thereafter. Mordden does an impressive job describing just how bleak that world was and how hard the fight was to accomplish the changes many of us today take for granted.

The author introduces us to a cast of wonderfully drawn and very diverse characters. Most notable among them:

  • Frank, the closeted vice cop at the story’s beginning, who later becomes a gay porno star. He is one of the novel’s most memorable characters.
  • Lois, the no-nonsense lesbian owner of Thriller Jill’s and her eventual partner Elaine. Elaine is married when we first meet her and eventually becomes a successful writer.
  • Luke and Tom ” the Twins”, childhood friends from small-town Minnesota whose lives become complicated when sexual longings begin to color their relationship.
  •  Luke and Tom’s close female friend Chris, the primary straight character in the story. She later moves to New York and achieves fame.
  • Walt, Tom’s nephew who grows from a young boy to a grown man.
  • Blue a teenage hustler from West Virginia.
  • and the unforgettable Johnny the Kid, the charismatic, cocky & talented singer/cabaret performer who in Chapter 1 is a 17 year-old and is approaching 60 by the time the story ends.

Many other fascinating characters are introduced throughout the book. Some both major and minor perish along the way; others survive to the end. There is an ever-shifting change of focus from one chapter to the next as the reader is regularly introduced to new individuals. In the hands of someone less skillful this shifting perspective might get muddled; Mordden however succeeds in making it work. He  uses a good mix of humor, sadness and pathos, infusing a sense of life and realism to the story as we join him and his characters in their journeys.

The opening sentence sets the stage for giving the reader the sense that one is looking back from the present to a distant time and place. “In the days when men were men and women adored them, there was a club called Thriller Jill’s on a side street off Hollywood Boulevard”. While primarily told from the third person POV, periodically this changes and it gradually becomes apparent that this is one person’s recollections of these events. That person’s identity is not revealed until the last pages.

While a long book, I never found myself wishing it would end. Each character’s story is fascinating and how their collective lives become intertwined made me want to keep reading. For anyone trying to understand the sea of change that happened within the LGBT community over this time period you need look no further than here. This was clearly one of the best books I read in 2014.

“Family Man” by Heidi Cullinan and Marie Sexton

Family Man

This book turned out to be surprisingly good – not great but compared to some of the M/M stories I have recently read, a definite improvement. As a gay man I like reading stories whose plots include two guys finding each other attractive, having sex and building a future together. I won’t deny that I enjoy being aroused by the descriptions of their love-making but when an author uses the thinnest of plots to essentially write nothing more than pornography, I feel cheated by the author. Regrettably I have encountered that a fair amount in my reading of late. How depressing to then see other readers give those books a 4 or 5 star rating on goodreads!

Much to their credit, Heidi Cullinan and Marie Sexton who co-authored the book avoid this approach or at least do in Family Man, the first book by either author that I have read. The story traces the relationship and romance that blossoms between Vince Fierro and Trey Giles. Vince is approaching forty, has been married three times (each one ending in divorce) and in the first pages of the book is beginning to question his sexuality. On the advice of his sister he heads to one of Chicago’s Boystown bars to check out the scene, hoping to prove to himself that he is not gay. He’s there just a short while feeling he has succeeded in validating that he is straight when in walks the attractive and much younger Trey, whom Vince casually knows from his neighborhood. Trey is openly and comfortably gay but is dealing with a boatload of issues in his life – a mother with severe substance abuse issues, a grandmother whom he loves dearly and whom he feels he needs to care for, two jobs, and school. He feels he does not now have the luxury of time to be dating anyone. In fact he has decided to remain a virgin until he meets the right guy. The two start to talk and Trey convinces Vince to go to another club where they dance cheek-to-cheek to the sexy music of John Coltrane. They quickly become attracted to one another; Trey’s no-sex attitude in fact makes Vince feel comfortable that he does not have to perform. Before very long a romance is blooming.

A lot happens before the last pages not the least of which is Vince coming out to his big Italian family, no small achievement. The book contains its share of humor, pathos and yes some down-and-dirty sex but that last item does not occur until more than halfway through the story. It was a joy to read the poignant connection that develops between the two main characters and to see each of them try to work through the emotional baggage they carry before having to read who stuck what into whom (not suggesting for a moment that was not enjoyable and sexy to read). The authors took the time to build an interesting story and develop appealing, complex and believable characters. What a breath of fresh air compared to some of the smut I have recently encountered!

One thing that I found a little odd about the work was the fact that while you see the story shifting between each character’s perspective, Trey’s vision is written from a first person POV, whereas Vince’s is from a third person POV. The fact that the book was written by two people made me wonder if essentially one author was writing Trey’s part of the story and the other writer was penning Vince’s story. If so it seems a little odd that before the book was published someone did not edit it to make it have a uniform POV. I did not see where this technique if intentional added anything to the story. I guess it would be a good question to ask the two authors.

I do think this is a worthwhile work and would recommend it to anyone who wants an easy, quick and satisfying novel. I posted a similar review on goodreads and commented that I so hate the very limited 5 star rating system that goodreads uses. As has happened so often in the past, for me this book falls between a 3 and a 4 under their system; more like a 7 out of 10. I cannot bring myself to rate this a 4 based on some of the books to which I have given that rating in the past. Thus I will have to knock it down a notch to a 3.

Blogging Again -This Time For Real!

 

HEY GUYS!
HAPPY TO REPORT…
I’M BACK!
SORRY FOR BEING SO DAMN INACTIVE

Good grief! Has it really been over five months since I last posted anything on my blog???? I am shocked, horrified and very embarrassed. Obviously I did not die. Likewise:
• I was not seriously ill.
• I was not having an emotional breakdown.
• I was not dealing with a major crisis in my life. I did have one (my runaway dog Tink missing for 4 weeks but that was mid-February to mid-March).
• I was not traveling (I will be doing that though in mid-October, ten glorious days in fabulous Spain!)
• I was not feverishly working three jobs – no, I am actually retired.
• I do not have young children to raise (just some grandkids to spoil from time-to-time).
• I was not in jail or held hostage.

As you can see I am rapidly running out of excuses. On the other hand, I also was not:
• Sitting around all day watching TV (one or two hours is the maximum time I spend in front of the boob tube)
• Drinking myself in a stupor (two glasses of wine in the evening is the extent of my binging)
• Having a hot and steamy affair (not that I would mind that)
• Bored and wondering “What am I going to do today?”
• Diligently working on my manuscript  (that is my deepest, darkest shame)

So what you may be wondering was I doing? I think it is called life and for me life in part meant devoting no time to my blog. I am not going to go into the details of what I did do other than to simply say I was enjoying myself, spending lots of time with my two wonderful dogs, reading a fair amount, oh and probably spending way too much time on Facebook and similar trivial online activities.

To the fine folks who have enjoyed what I have posted here, my sincere apologies. I probably have lost a fair percentage of you during this time due to my negligence but to the ones who may have been hoping that I might come up for air again, thank you and I hope to regain your favor. Ah, the air smells sweet and just posting this now makes me feel alive and akin to a recovered alcoholic or a born-again Christian. Alright I admit that may be a bit over-the-top.

I actually revisited my blog this evening to write a review of a book that I just finished and it was then that I realized how long it had been since I posted anything here. That review as well as some others will have to wait for another day. In the meantime I hope you too have been enjoying life.