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.

 

IMG_1336.JPG

“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.

” 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.

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

11182287

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

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.

“Something Like Summer” by Jay Bell

10204926

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.

 

“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.

Welcome Home Tink!

Tink  at home 3-13-14.2

I am so happy to report that after missing for 4 weeks my wonderful pooch Tink and I were reunited on March 13, almost to the exact hour of when I last saw here on Feb. 13. Tink is an absolutely loveable, affectionate and gentle 8 year-old shepherd mix that has been in my life now for only 2 months. While attending the annual San Francisco Writers Conference I left her at the shelter where I first met and fell in love with her. Five hours after leaving her there, she was outside their building and the person “taking care” of her lost control of my sweet girl. She fled, probably thinking she would try to find me. I did not learn of this for two days and from that moment until she was rescued my life was centered around trying to find her. Complicating matters further was the area where she was lost is about 18 miles from my home, making my search especially challenging. With the exception of caring for my other dog Aries, everything else in my life went into cold storage. I could write a book about what that four-week ordeal was like. In fact a good friend of mine who herself is a very gifted writer told me I should. I may just do that once the manuscript I am currently working on is complete. In the meantime it’s wonderful to have my little girl back in my life again and to be able to get back into my normal routine. Welcome Home Tink!

My Missing Girl Tink

Tink at Dracena Park # 3

For the past 2 weeks my life’s mission has been trying to find my missing dog Tink and so I have ignored my blog as well as most other activities that are not crucial. Above is a picture of her; in case you’re interested in more detail I’ve been posting nearly every day my activities on my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ed.hartnett. I’m leaving my house soon to resume the search. Wish me luck!