“Probation” by Tom Mendicino

9869531

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.

Advertisements

” Flesh and Blood” by Michael Cunningham

542992

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.

“As Meat Loves Salt” by Maria McCann

As Meat Loves Salt

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.

” 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.

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

5297

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: “Last Summer” by Michael Thomas Ford

Last Summer

Earlier this year I read Changing Tides by Michael Thomas Ford which I found very enjoyable. I found out that he has written or co-authored a large number of books covering a variety of genres over a twenty year period and added a couple of them to my To Read list. Last Summer was the one that most intrigued me in part I think because it takes place in Provincetown.  I came out as a gay man while living in Boston oh so many years ago; since P-Town was an easy two-hour drive from Boston and also has a sizable gay population I often went there over a three-year period to relax, enjoy the sun and surf, and be a bit mischievous.

The story takes place from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Rather than focusing on just a few main characters, the reader is introduced to an ensemble of individuals who find themselves there for the summer. Some are long-time residents, some are people looking to simply relax and have a good time and some are there trying to escape their past. The story begins with Josh Felling who has left his apartment in Boston after finding out his long-time boyfriend has been sleeping with someone from his gym. He goes to Provincetown with the notion of having a long weekend by himself to sort out his feelings and winds up spending the summer there. Toby Evans is a somewhat naive seventeen year-old who has traveled by bus from Missouri to escape the condemnation of his parents for being gay. Emmeline also came here to escape parental rejection many years earlier. He/she performs in a drag show and is working to save enough money to have a sex change operation. Jackie has lived in town for 20 years, owns a popular restaurant/bar/nightclub and has recently ended a relationship with her long-time partner Karla. She is also about to turn forty and questioning where her life is headed. Reilly Brennan comes from a family that has lived in P-town for generations. He and his fiancée will soon be getting married but he finds his fantasies are disturbingly about members of his same sex. Ty Rusk is one of the hottest new stars in Hollywood and is fantasized as husband material by millions of adoring fans. What they don’t know is that he is a long-term relationship with his producer, Reid Truman. Devin Lowens is a local who has aspirations of making it big-time in New York or Hollywood but has begrudgingly moved back from NYC into her family’s home. She has an enormous student loan to pay off and feels bitterly beaten and defeated by having to live with her parents again. Marly Prentis is the successful director of the Arts House, married and with one child, who is now finding her life dull and hoping to find something or someone to re-energize it.

It is these characters and others who populate this well-written book. The story is told from the third person POV. Each chapter is brief, typically ten pages or less, and each chapter changes its focus from one of these characters to another. Ford executes this process very skillfully; in the hands of someone else the shifting emphasis of character might be confusing but I found it flowed very smoothly. The book in some ways reminded me of two other works, one a movie, the other another novel. The movie I have in mind is the 2004 award-winning Crash, the book or more correctly books of which this reminds me is the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin. The analogy is that all of these have an ensemble cast, not merely two or three main characters, and their lives are on a collision course with one another.

While I enjoyed Ford’s 2007 work Changing Tides, I feel this earlier work is superior. Last Summer won the Lambda Literary Award in 2004 for Best Romance Novel. If I had to find one fault with the book I would say that it has a little bit too much of a happily ever after ending. I think that’s a pretty minor criticism though. Ford wrote this book to entertain and he does a top-notch job at that. The story moves quickly and the characters are well-developed and believable. I’m surprised the story has not been adapted for either the big or small screen although maybe even in 2013 it has too much of a gay theme to make that happen. If they ever did do it though Joseph Gordon-Levitt would be perfect-casting for the role of Josh.

Even though I read the book right before Christmas, I would say put this on your summer reading list, preferably reading it on the beach or on a chaise lounge sipping one of those silly summer drinks with an umbrella in it.

Favorite Books That I Read in 2013

I’ve had the good fortune to have read some incredible books these past twelve months. Earlier this week I posted a rant here about the books that appear on a goodreads thread titled Best Books Ever, a list to which I took strong exception. So for the record the works I mention below are the ones I read this past year that I most enjoyed and which I believe have helped to make me a better writer; each of them I found truly outstanding. I will not attempt to rank these; each was superb in its own special way. Thus they are arranged in alphabetical order by title. These authors have all truly inspired me as I work to complete and get published my own first novel. I have also included my Honorable Mention List. A number of the books on both lists were the author’s first published work, wonderful encouragement for those of us who hope to see our own first book in print. The date following the author’s name is where you will find a more detailed review of each of these works in the Archive section to the right. Happy Holiday Reading!

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham: (May 2013) One of my new favorite authors, the story centers around the relationship between two people who meet as young boys, experiment sexually with each other, move apart and reconnect later in life. Beautiful, heartwarming, funny and sad. This book preceded his Pulitzer Prize winner, The Hours.

Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman: (Feb. 2013) Set in the Italian Riviera and viewed from the perspective of someone looking back on events that happened in the distant past. Aciman creates an erotic energy between two young men that is not consummated until late in the book. Rarely have I ever seen such a beautiful mastery of language and images. I was in complete awe by the time I finished this brilliant literary novel.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin: (Feb. 2013) The tragic, heart-breaking story of doomed love set in 1950’s Paris. One of the great breakthroughs of 20th century literature and one perfectly executed.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: (Aug. 2013) What can I possibly say that has not been said ad infinitum about one of the greatest pieces of American fiction? How did I ever get this far into life without having already read it? A masterpiece without question.

Where You Are by J.H. Trumble: (Nov. 2013) I read two books this year by this incredibly gifted author. This one dares to take head-on the taboo subject of teacher/student intimacy forcing the reader to not think in black & white terms. She creates a beautiful, complex and thoughtful work in the process.

Winter Birds: A Novel by Jim Grimsley: (Dec. 2013) A grim, painful and frightening novel set in a poor rural North Carolina home dealing with an abusive and alcoholic man who terrorizes his wife and five children. 

Honorable Mention List

Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette: (May 2013) This memoir is so painful, so poignant, so beautifully written and deals with the author’s struggle for the first half of his life to accept himself as a gay man. So sad that this great author died way too soon.

Don’t Let Me Go by J.H. Trumble: (June 2013) The other novel I read by this talented author this year and her first. The story centers on two young men deeply in love who face serious challenges and jealousies when circumstances force them to live far apart from one another. This author has really impressed me.

Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley: (Aug 2013) One of three books I read by Grimsley this year. A disturbing, powerful and moving story of forbidden and unspoken love in the rural South.

Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez: (Sept. 2013) This book focuses on the lives of three high school seniors, whose lives are interconnected, each of whom is in a different state of gay self-acceptance. At times quite humorous, at other times fairly serious.

Three Junes by Julia Glass: (Aug. 2013) The 2002 National Book Award Winner. Three separate but interconnected stories taking place in Greece, Scotland and New York during three Junes over a ten-year period. Fascinating work!

 

 

Background Reading for My Novel: “Changing Tides” by Michael Thomas Ford

Changing Tides

I am currently in the process of reading Last Summer by Michael Thomas Ford and enjoying it very much. About 3 months earlier I read Ford’s Changing Tides and somehow never got around to writing a review of it so my post today deals with that book. I try to review books shortly after I have read them so my impressions are clear in my mind and not clouded by plots and characters of stories I have read since. Hopefully I will do the author justice.

This story takes place in Monterey, CA and is told from the POV of three individuals. Hudson Jones, a young gay man, comes to Monterey to complete research that was begun by a deceased lover on an unpublished manuscript possibly authored by Monterey’s favorite son, John Steinbeck. If Hudson’s research proves accurate it would be an eye-opening revelation about the famous author that would bring Hudson instant fame. Ben Ransome is a divorced marine biologist living in Monterey who is totally absorbed in his work and who has a virtually non-existent personal life. His life is turned upside down when his sixteen year-old daughter Caddie, much to her dismay, is uprooted from her Southern California home by her mother to spend the summer with her estranged dad in hopes of re-establishing a connection between the two. She is very angry at her father, feeling he is a deadbeat dad, and goes out of her way to aggravate him. On a personal note I unfortunately can relate only too well to the bad karma since I have an adult daughter who feels the same way about me. Ben and Hudson meet, enjoy each other’s company despite the significant age difference, soon become friends and start spending time together in a platonic way. Carrie quickly detects the flirtation going on between her dad and Hudson even before they realize it. She is not repelled by it; in fact she becomes jealous of Hudson, a somewhat surprising attitude considering her animosity towards her dad.

There is a good story here although the going is a bit slow at first. The book is 352 pages long and as I recall it took about 100 or so pages before the pace picked up. Hang in there would be my suggestion if you are finding the book dragging; it is well worth reading. The tension between Ben and Carrie I felt was the most well-developed of the relationships and Carrie’s bite off her nose to spite her face attitude has near tragic consequences. The shifting point of view of the story reflecting the thoughts of the three main characters works very well as the reader is able to get inside the head of each of them.

Unlike the last work I most recently reviewed here on my blog, the sex scenes in this book both gay and straight have a PG-13 quality to them. That’s not a criticism of either book but merely an observation. Both books were quite enjoyable. My major reservation about Changing Tides was that the author got into what I saw as too much detail about marine biology. Obviously Ford knows the subject well or did an incredible amount of research to prepare for his writing and I respect him for that. I just think that for most readers the detail is overkill. I did not lose interest in the book because of this; the characters and storyline were both very good and kept me wanting to read more. If you happen to enjoy marine biology and a well-written book you will probably love this work. Obviously I enjoyed this book enough to want to read more by the author since that is in fact what I am doing now.

Background Reading for My Novel: “Winter Birds” by Jim Grimsley

220751

Winter Birds is the third book I have read this year by Jim Grimsley and like the previous works this was a definite winner. Comfort & Joy was the first book of his I read and it traced the meeting and eventual loving relationship of two men from completely different backgrounds. Ford McKinney comes from an old-monied Savannah family and like previous generations is a successful doctor. Dan Crell is a hospital administrator working in the same hospital as Ford who comes from impoverished rural North Carolina roots. Comfort & Joy hints that there is a dark ugly side to Dan’s family history but leaves the reader wondering what it is. Because I enjoyed Comfort & Joy so much and read that Grimsley’s first novel Winter Birds was the story of Dan’s childhood I quickly added the book to my To Read list.

Winter Birds is a mere 200+ pages and one that can easily be finished in a day if the reader is so inclined. The bulk of the story takes place on Thanksgiving Day. Ironically enough I finished reading it on Thanksgiving Eve. The author uses an interesting second person POV for the story, suggesting that Dan or Danny as he is called as a boy is viewing the story in his mind probably as an adult. He and his four siblings live with their parents and family dog in incredible poverty in the rural South. The father lost an arm in a farm accident and from that point forward becomes a cruel, abusive, drunken monster whom everyone in the family fears. In the longest chapter in the book, we learn the history of the family’s routine movement from one poor home to the next (a total of 7 in Danny’s brief 8 years at this point) to which he and his older sister Amy Kay have assigned appropriate names; the Snake House (snakes everywhere), the Fish House (formerly a fish store), the Ice House (only one small heater in the house), etc. The last home is the Circle House since it is circular and one door opens to the next and it is here that the story both begins and ends. The design of the house helps to add to the book’s heart-pounding finale.

This is a very painful, terrifying story to read and a sad reminder of the all too common incidence of extreme abuse both physical and emotional that far too many women, children and animals endure on a daily basis. At one point Danny reflects, “I wish I could go to sleep and not wake up, no matter how loud he yells. Except then I’d be scared to wake up and see what he did when I was asleep.” The book begins fairly slowly but by the half way point the pace picks up dramatically building to a horrific conclusion. I could not put the book down for the last 80 pages even though it was way past my bedtime. Part of the suspense of the novel is reading moments of terror followed by calming relief, but the calmness has a lingering sense that more evil will soon follow. The reader just does not know what form that evil will take and just how far the madness of Danny’s father Bobjay will go.

I have read that this story is at least partly autobiographical. I can only hope for Grimsley’s sake that there is more fiction that fact in this his first novel. Writing this must surely have been a cathartic experience for the author. American publishers initially rejected the work, regarding it as too depressing and dark and for many years it went unpublished. Bear in mind self-publishing 20 years ago was unlike now fairly uncommon.  Only after being published in Germany did the reading public begin to appreciate what a phenomenal book it was. Eventually two years later it made its American debut and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction in 1995.

Like the other books of his I have read, especially Dream Boy, this is anything but a feel-good work of fiction. Oh but it so worth it. I am so glad I had the good fortune to stumble upon Grimsley’s work this year. He is an amazing author and one I hope to I encounter again in my readings.

UPDATE: I just finished re-reading the review I wrote earlier this year of Grimsley’s book Dream Boy. “Enticing, entrancing, powerful, moving, violent, tragic, sparse, brilliantly crafted and executed, immensely satisfying” was how I described it. All of those words apply as well to this work.