Love at First Sight

This is a very special day, not just for me but for one of the greatest loves of my life. Two years ago today I drove seventeen miles from my home to a no-kill animal shelter to check out the dogs there, with the idea of fostering one. And though there were far too many pooches there in need of a home, one in particular caught my attention. I think you might justly call it love at first sight.

The dog was Tink, an eight-year-old shepherd mix, who is now a permanent part of my household. I/we had a rough time of it for two months. Having been abandoned at least three times in the previous four months, she had severe separation anxiety and was prone towards being very destructive when left alone. Then one day, while not in my care, she went missing, and for four weeks I devoted myself to finding her. It was one of the most demanding, gut-wrenching experiences I have known in my many years.

I am now writing a memoir about those two months, and hope to have it published by the end of 2016. To help me achieve that goal, I am active with two writing groups that are contributing to making me a better writer.

While I wish neither Tink nor I had to be put through that wretched ordeal, I will say this. Rather than declaring I grew so attached to her despite what I underwent during those two months, I think my love for her in large part is because of what I endured to get her back. Below is a photo I took of her the first day I saw her.

I love you sweetheart and am so happy our paths in life crossed.

 

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Musing on Today’s Oscar Nominations and Past Winners

The Oscar nominations today. Always fun to check out and second guess. But let’s face it. The Academy has clearly gotten it wrong a fair number of times in its eighty-seven year history. Case in point. In my opinion, last year’s Best Picture win for Birdman over much of its competition, especially Whiplash, Selma, and The Theory of Everything.

But hold on; far worse choices have been made. Below is an article that discusses the issue. While it does not cover the last five winners, it makes for interesting reading. In my opinion, the biggest offenders: In 1941, How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane; 1951’s An American in Paris over either A Place in the Sun or A Streetcar Named Desire; 1952’s The Greatest Show On Earth over virtually everything else, but particularly, High Noon; and in 2005, Crash over Brokeback Mountain. What was the Academy thinking?? I have seen all of these films, most of them more than once. Except for The Greatest Show On Earth, I thought all of these winners were good to very good films. But Best Picture? No way!

This year’s I’ve seen practically none of the Best Picture nominees but plan to squeeze in as many as I can before Award night. And PLEASE, PLEASE Academy, NOT Mad Max: Fury Road. I watched it for thirty-five minutes and walked away in total disgust at it its gratuitous violence.

I’d love to know what you think. Thanks for reading!

Ranked: Every Oscar Best Picture Winner from Worst to Best

Rising from Ashes: Not the Movie – Me!

In the unlikely event that anyone is still following my blog, I am resurfacing after nearly a year of hibernation. “WTF!!!” you may be thinking. “We figured that you must have died.”  Not quite. In fact I am doing quite well. “Well then why the hell have you not been posting anything?”  No one single reason…and I refuse to be defensive about my inactivity.

The simple explanation was lack of motivation. My stated aim for starting this blog was to write reviews of books I was reading,  books that in one way or another had a connection with the novel I was writing. Well, guess what? I lost interest in the project I started in 2013; or more to the point certain events happened in my life that made working on my manuscript impossible. And by the time matters were resolved, I simply had lost the fire to get back to working on the novel. No novel to write, no need to read books that would make my work better, no reviews to post. Simple as that.

“Okay, then why are you bothering to write anything here now?” Good question. My reason is because I am now in the process of writing a new book. This time not a novel, but a memoir. I can see the eyes rolling  and hear the smug chuckles. Yeah, I know my credibility is a notch lower than that of the U.S. Congress.

So here’s the deal. I am serious about this. Really, I am, though I don’t blame you for doubting me. In fact I feel highly motivated, much more so than I ever did about the novel. On that last point, I plan to one day get back to the novel but probably not for another two years.

“Alright. Get to the chase Ed. What the hell is the memoir about?”

Thank you for asking. The memoir is focused on a two-month period in my life, the time when my novel got thrown overboard because of catastrophic events; well, catastrophic at least for me and a wonderful four-legged creature named Tink.

I began working on the book in August of this year. I have just completed a memoir writing class and in a few days will begin taking part in regular meetings with some very gifted writers who I am confident will give me the support and feedback I need. I have set a goal of having a first draft of the manuscript finished by early spring 2016 and a publication date of later in the year. Now does that not sound like I am taking this seriously? I think it does.

I am not entirely certain what direction this blog will take. Musings about the book, challenges I am experiencing writing it, short excerpts from it, the writing group I have joined, books I have read, all of the above, none of the above? I’ll figure it out. I am also not at this point going to commit to posting something here every X number of days.  I’ll figure that out too and once I get into a groove, try to stay with the flow.

I’m excited; I’m thrilled; I’m motivated. Wish me luck!

“Mysterious Skin” by Scott Heim

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Earlier this year I read Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim and only now am I getting around to reviewing it. I recall when I finished it my reaction was “Wow!” This is an engrossing and extraordinarily well-written work, especially when one considers that it was Heim’s first published novel. The subject matter is one of society’s great taboos, child abuse/pedophilia. The story traces the lives of two young boys, Brian Lackey and Neil McCormick, both eight years old when the tale begins; they live in Hutchinson, Kansas about 50 miles NW of Wichita and the year is 1981. While they do not really know one another until the story’s end eleven years later, their lives are very much connected. The two though could not be more different.

Brian is quiet, withdrawn and a somewhat nerdy kid. He is one of two children in a middle-class family in which the parents are increasingly growing apart. Brian’s father is determined to make his son a Little League star even though the boy has no interest and very little talent. In the opening chapter Brian is under the crawl space of his house late at night, bruised and confused, having no recollection of what happened to him over the past five hours. He eventually becomes convinced he was abducted by aliens and held captive in a UFO. Trying to discover what occurred on that fateful evening is his narrative.

Neil lives with his single, promiscuous mom on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. He is daring and a hell-raiser, the total opposite of Brian. We learn early on that he has been seduced and sexually abused by “Coach” Heider. Rather than feeling violated by the experience, he is comfortably drawn into the relationship. As the story progresses and Neil reaches puberty, he turns to hustling and targets adult men, craving the satisfaction and security he experienced with Coach Heider. Unlike Brian who cannot remember what happened to him, Neil cannot and does want to forget.

The story has a shifting first person POV. Besides Brian and Neil we see the story unfold through the perspective of three other people:

•Deborah, Brian’s sister
•Wendy Peterson, Neil’s close friend since sixth grade who has a serious crush on Neil but who eventually must accept the fact that his sexual cravings are not for the opposite sex
•Eric Preston, Neil’s other close friend who is gay and in love with Neil although the feeling is not mutual

Other key characters include Avelyn Friesen, whom Brian seeks out when he learns of her accounts of being abducted by aliens, Brian’s parents, Neil’s mother and of course Coach Heider.

This is not a book for the squeamish and I am certain many will be repelled by the graphic descriptions of Coach Heider’s appalling predatory behavior. If however you can stomach the subject matter, it is difficult to not be impressed by the incredible story that Heim has to tell. The author tells a frightening, disturbing tale populated with believable and interesting characters.

In 2004 there was a film adaptation of the book starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet as the teenage Neil and Brian, and Bill Sage as the Coach. Gordon-Levitt has recently become one of my favorite actors and seems the perfect actor to capture Neil’s complex and fascinating character. The film like the book received excellent reviews and I look forward to seeing it sometime soon. The novel is a definite winner, perhaps the best book I have read in 2014.

Reflections on the 2014 Elections

Though this site is predominantly dedicated to reviews of literature I have recently read and other matters related to the book I am writing, from time to time I digress and reflect on other subjects. Thus I decided to briefly sum up my summary of last night’s election results.

Significant 2014 election results:
• Republicans win control of US Senate
• Mitch McConnell the heir-apparent Senate Majority leader
• Republicans widen their majority in the House of Representatives
• Re-election of Governors Scott Walker, Rick Scott, Sam Brownback, John Kasich, Nathan Deal, and Rick Snyder
• Defeat of Mark Udall, Mark Pryor, Michelle Nunn, Bruce Braley, and Kay Hagan for US Senate

From my perspective, in a word: depressing.

On the other hand:
• Re-election of Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi & Barbara Lee, all by huge margins

Bottom line: Makes me damn glad I live in California, especially the Bay Area!

Guess it is not too difficult to figure out the way my political winds blow.

“Probation” by Tom Mendicino

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I was pleasantly surprised at how well written this book was, especially considering it was Mendicino’s first novel. The plot sounded interesting enough: Andy Nocera, a married man in his late thirties, is arrested for having sex with another guy at an interstate rest stop. His life quickly goes downhill from that point. Besides the public shame and legal ramifications, he loses both his job and his wife. As the title suggests, the story traces his life during his one year probation period. This is Andy’s story and is told from his point of view. Over the course of his probation Andy must finally come to terms with accepting himself as a gay man, something he has struggled with since his early teens. We learn much about Andy’s back story through the effective use of flashback.

Probation is an excellent accounting of one man’s fall from grace and the difficult road he must take over the course of one year before he can achieve happiness and inner peace. Andy is neither a hero nor a villain. He is just one screwed-up guy trying to make some sense out of his life. The author has strong writing skills and delivers a story that is powerful and compelling. In addition to Andy the other primary characters are:
• Matt: the court-appointed counselor, psychiatrist as well as Jesuit priest. Matt is the perfect foil for Andy and plays an important role in getting Andy to accept himself.
• Alice: his ex-wife who despite everything that has happened still cares deeply about Andy.
• Andy’s mom who bails him out of jail, welcomes him into her home and provides him important emotional support.

Some of the comments others have made about this book frankly annoy me. Apparently some people found Andy whiny, self-righteous, irritating and pathetic. One person commented “If you’re dissatisfied then change your life and stop whining. He seemed to ‘enjoy’ being miserable, drinking and smoking himself into a stupor.” Really? I could not disagree more strongly. The story as I recall takes place in North Carolina in the early 90’s, not exactly the cradle of love your gay neighbor. To apply a mindset of Will and Grace, Modern Family and Marriage Equality to Andy’s time and place as I suspect many Generation Xers and Millennials do is preposterous. Even in 2014 there is enormous societal pressure to think and act straight. Andy grew up in an environment that told him he was sick and disgusting for his sexual urges and behavior and he should probably be beaten to a pulp like Matthew Shepherd was. As a result he is self-loathing and resorts to drinking heavily to mask the pain he is feeling. “Don’t judge me till you have walked a mile in my shoes” seems an apt way of describing his situation. That is why I can and apparently others cannot understand his anguish, self-hatred and suffering.

Like Andy I too was once married, trying to live the Leave it To Beaver existence society had pressured me into believing I needed to pursue to achieve happiness. Even though I had known since my early teens that guys and not gals was what aroused me, I struggled with my feelings, living a lie, trying to convince myself and others I was something I wasn’t. Only when I reached the age of thirty and my marriage started to crumble did I face my demons. Fortunately I was not caught at a public restroom having sex, although at the time the prospect of engaging in such activity did cross my mind on more than one occasion. Living in the closet is a bleak and heavy burden to bear. Like Andy when I allowed myself to accept me for who and what I was, it was quite liberating.

This is not an easy story to read but one that is gripping, believable and very satisfying. It is not your usual M/M romance story. Rather it is the saga of a middle-aged man who happens to be gay though not willing to acknowledge it, and what happens to him after getting caught going down on another guy at a rest stop. The work was a Lambda Literary Award Nominee for Gay Debut Fiction in 2011. All-in-all this was a very rewarding novel.

” Flesh and Blood” by Michael Cunningham

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Flesh and Blood is another masterful work by Michael Cunningham, an incredibly gifted writer. Last year I read A Home at the End of the World, the author’s first novel.  I absolutely loved it. Though I have not read his Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours, I have seen the movie based on the book several times; it is one of my all-time favorite films.  This book written between the two others just mentioned is nothing short of superb.

The novel told from the third person POV chronicles three generations of the Stassos family beginning in post-World War II America. Constantine Stassos, a Greek immigrant, marries Mary Cuccio, a striking young woman of Italian heritage. Early in their marriage trouble develops and Mary soon feels she has married below her station. Things rapidly spiral downward in their relationship. They have three children. Susan, the oldest, like her mother is very attractive;  ironically she pays a heavy price for her natural beauty. Her father has the disturbing habit of touching her often and for too long, suggesting sexual cravings for her. While outwardly she seems the most conventional and successful of the children, below the surface she is quite unhappy. Billy, the brightest of the three, has a stormy relationship with his father even as a young boy; their relationship becomes especially ugly when he announces he is gay. The younger daughter Zoe is wild, rebellious and reckless. It becomes obvious she is destined to have a troubled future. Add to the mix the romantic relationships of the adult children as well as the next generation of the Stassos family, Ben and Jamal. Each character adds further depth, darkness and occasional humor to the story. Especially memorable and endearing is Cassandra, a drag queen and Zoe’s close friend.

The story takes place over nearly five decades, from 1949 through 1995. In addition there is a three page snippet of Constantine’s childhood at the beginning as well as a two page conclusion that looks to the distant future (2035). The two brief chapters act as interesting and effective bookmarks for the main story.

Cunningham covers a broad range of issues in the book: a heavy-handed patriarch, an aloof mother, love, death, infidelity, incest, child abuse, drug abuse, kleptomania, generational tension, homosexuality, AIDS, self-mutilation, class conflict, and so much more. I like many people have often thought that I came from a dysfunctional family.  The Stassos family takes that concept to a whole new level.

Cunningham is a master of prose, creating rich, complex characters and vivid images with his words. The tone of the book is one of melancholy and tragedy. There are no real villains or heroes but rather a cast of characters all with their own flaws. The book took me a longer than normal time to read not because it was dull or difficult. Rather I was captivated throughout the story and hated coming to the last page. I wanted to savor the work and not rush through it. I look forward to reading more of Cunningham’s works. He has quickly become one of my favorite authors.

“Language Lessons” by Jay Bell: A Short Review of a Short Story

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This is a cute (maybe a little too cute?) short story about a 16 year-old guy who because of his parents’ failed marriage does not believe in love. Instead he is really only interested in regularly getting laid. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that especially when you have the raging hormones of sixteen. That’s just who Joey is. When we first meet Joey he is home and sees through his window a guy whom he has longed to snag for at least two years and who has just come home from college. For the next forty pages we follow his escapades which culminate in his seriously falling for someone much to our protagonist’s surprise.

This was a quick, easy, amusing and entertaining story. Earlier this year I read the author’s Something Like Summer which I enjoyed a great deal. This work was not quite up to the caliber of the Summer book but considering its brevity it may be a bit unfair to compare the two works.  It was good as far as it went, just not quite good enough to merit a higher rating from me. I do like the author’s light and breezy writing style and his positive portrayal of M/M relationships. I have two more of his books on my To Read list, including Something Like Winter which parallels the story line of Something Like Summer, only this time through the eyes and mind of the other party in that romantic tale. I posted a review of the Summer book in September. If you are interested you can read that review here.

PS: I am going to be out of the country for a couple of weeks so this will be my last post until I get back. If you like my reviews, thanks. I promise I will be posting another in late October after I return.

“As Meat Loves Salt” by Maria McCann

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As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann was one of the more challenging books I have read in recent years. The setting is England during the 1640’s and the tale is told through the eyes, ears, words and mind of the unstable, violent, confused and possibly mad Jacob Cullen. In the first seventy or so pages Jacob seems quite sympathetic. He and his siblings through simple bad fortune have become servants of the despised Mervin Roche, aka Sir Bastard. Jacob is soon to be wed to another servant named Caro, whom he has known for a long time. The wedding takes place as planned and all seems well. Shortly thereafter though all hell breaks loose and Jacob, Caro and one of Jacob’s brothers take flight. In a rapid succession of events and revelations we learn that beneath Jacob’s pleasant demeanor, a monster is hiding. Following these shocking developments, Jacob is conscripted into Oliver Cromwell’s Army, where he becomes increasingly drawn to a fellow soldier, Christopher Ferris. Eventually the two become lovers. Their relationship is not only passionate but extremely perilous since anyone found guilty of sodomy during this time was likely to be hanged. The two eventually desert the army and go to Ferris’ London home. All of this action occurs in the first two hundred pages of the book. The balance of the story (another 365 pages) traces their lives and relationship from that point forward.

While the story line is interesting and generally well-written, I found the work to be unnecessarily long & agonizingly slow-paced. At times I became impatient with it and could not wait to complete its 565 pages. This book to me is a classic example of less would be more. I kept thinking that the tempo of the story would pick up. Except for several very emotionally charged scenes it largely never did. There are occasions when the author’s lengthy descriptions are appropriate and effective. One such example is the siege of Basing House, the prosperous and imposing Catholic fortress, about a third of the way into the story. The 1645 battle was a real event in the First English Civil War although the primary characters are fictitious. The graphic description of the slaughter that ensued was difficult to read. The author paints a vivid picture of the battle and provides a grim reminder of the horrors of war.

When this book is good it is quite good as the battle of Basing House demonstrates. Unfortunately though for most of the novel, I found the preoccupation with detail counter-productive. Also adding to my discomfort, the author was true to the way I believe people spoke during that time, so for my twenty-first century brain I found many of the long conversations to be a bit odd and off-balance. Having said all this, I am glad that I hung in there and completed the book as laboring as it was to read. The work for me falls just short of being great. The story and its main characters, especially Jacob, are quite memorable. The final chapters are especially quite moving. I suspect that in the right director’s hands it would make an excellent movie.

“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.