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 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.
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.
HAPPY TO REPORT…
SORRY FOR BEING SO DAMN INACTIVE
Good grief! Has it really been over five months since I last posted anything on my blog???? I am shocked, horrified and very embarrassed. Obviously I did not die. Likewise:
• I was not seriously ill.
• I was not having an emotional breakdown.
• I was not dealing with a major crisis in my life. I did have one (my runaway dog Tink missing for 4 weeks but that was mid-February to mid-March).
• I was not traveling (I will be doing that though in mid-October, ten glorious days in fabulous Spain!)
• I was not feverishly working three jobs – no, I am actually retired.
• I do not have young children to raise (just some grandkids to spoil from time-to-time).
• I was not in jail or held hostage.
As you can see I am rapidly running out of excuses. On the other hand, I also was not:
• Sitting around all day watching TV (one or two hours is the maximum time I spend in front of the boob tube)
• Drinking myself in a stupor (two glasses of wine in the evening is the extent of my binging)
• Having a hot and steamy affair (not that I would mind that)
• Bored and wondering “What am I going to do today?”
• Diligently working on my manuscript (that is my deepest, darkest shame)
So what you may be wondering was I doing? I think it is called life and for me life in part meant devoting no time to my blog. I am not going to go into the details of what I did do other than to simply say I was enjoying myself, spending lots of time with my two wonderful dogs, reading a fair amount, oh and probably spending way too much time on Facebook and similar trivial online activities.
To the fine folks who have enjoyed what I have posted here, my sincere apologies. I probably have lost a fair percentage of you during this time due to my negligence but to the ones who may have been hoping that I might come up for air again, thank you and I hope to regain your favor. Ah, the air smells sweet and just posting this now makes me feel alive and akin to a recovered alcoholic or a born-again Christian. Alright I admit that may be a bit over-the-top.
I actually revisited my blog this evening to write a review of a book that I just finished and it was then that I realized how long it had been since I posted anything here. That review as well as some others will have to wait for another day. In the meantime I hope you too have been enjoying life.
It’s been quite some time since I did any serious blogging. This site is primarily focused on my comments and reviews of books I have recently read, books I read with the hope that they would inspire me and help to make me a better writer as I plod along on the manuscript of my novel. Occasionally I do digress from that general theme to muse about events going on in my life that I deem significant.
Back on Feb.1, I posted that I would be taking a break in the action and that my blogging would be less frequent and shorter so that I could devote more time to my manuscript. That was the plan. Then my world got turned upside down when one of my two dogs went missing. For the next four weeks I did precious little else during my waking hours that did not have something to do with finding and rescuing Tink. Blogging, working on my novel, and countless other activities that seemed so important previously now seemed to be trivial compared to finding my lost girl. The story had a happy ending and she was rescued. In fact she’s lying by my side as I type this. Life goes on, thankfully.
So now I have a lot of lost time to try to make up. My manuscript will remain my top priority or I should say second priority since caring for Tink and my loveable other pooch Aries are and will remain my top priority. I also set a personal goal to read thirty books this year. I’ve polished off six already so I’m on track for achieving that goal and want to make sure I do not fall behind.That brings up trying to make time to write reviews of books I’ve recently read (three and counting at the moment) as well as my reflections on the wonderful San Francisco Writers Conference that I was attending when Tink disappeared. I had to skip the fourth day of the conference to begin my search for Tink, but benefited greatly from the three days I attended and want to write a little about that experience. I hope to make room for one blog a week until I actually have caught up. Then again as I learned in February, I do not know what curve ball may be coming my way. Stay tuned!
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!
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!
I attended the four-day San Francisco Writers Conference which began on Feb. 13 & presumed I would be writing about what I learned there on my latest blog. Unfortunately on Feb. 15 I got a call that the dog that I have been fostering had cut loose only hours after I left her at the shelter where I got her. Trying to find her immediately became my top priority and while we have had some promising leads, as of this writing she still has not been found. Once the dust settles and hopefully she is back in my home I’ll come up for air and share my thoughts about the conference. Wish me luck finding Tink.
I have come to the conclusion that I need to get more serious about working on my novel. Rather than being a top priority somehow in the course of a day, a week, a month it seems to be something I postpone and instead choose all too often to do something else. Granted I am happy to say that I do have a rather full life and never find myself staring into space wondering “Gee I have too much free time on my hands, I’m bored, what am I going to do today?” For a significant portion of my adult life I have been a strong proponent of compiling a daily To-Do list either late in the evening or early in the morning as I am slurping down my second or third cup of coffee. It helps me to prioritize what I want to achieve for the day and gives me a sense of accomplishment by day’s end to see the items that I have crossed off my list. Having said that I realize that working on my novel frequently gets trumped by other activities.
Writing here on my blog is one of those activities that too often seems to creep ahead of spending time writing my novel. In the back of my mind I have rationalized that no matter what form it takes, creative writing is beneficial to sharpen my skills. I think there is some truth to that but… Granted this is not something I do on a daily basis but as anyone who has followed my blog for a while knows, my musings tend to be lengthy, sometimes totaling eight hundred or more words. A while back I had set a goal of composing at least a thousand words a day in my manuscript, vowing at the time I would commit to doing that and not stop until I reached that goal each day. Initially I was diligent about following that rule but somehow fell into sloppy habits and stopped being committed to achieving that not very demanding goal. If I am ever to give birth to this baby I need to get back to making my manuscript a top priority at least five days a week. I also know me well enough that once I am regularly achieving a thousand plus words a day before very long that number will likely double or triple.
This self-flagellation is a long way of saying that in addition to making other adjustments in my life I will be writing less often here and when I do write my postings will usually be briefer. Feel free to nag me with comments like “How’s that book coming along Ed?” “How many word did you add to your novel in the past day or week?” Or just be downright nasty and yell out “Hey a**hole, cut out the crap and get working!” Despite years of counseling long ago, it is possible to reawaken the guilt buried in my subconscious from my Catholic upbringing. End of story…for now. Thanks!
I just today received the following message from J. H. Trumble, whose novel Just Between Us I reviewed last week. “I love you Ed Hartnett! I’m so touched by your review of this book, all my books! I worried a lot about JBU, but I know you to be a discriminating reader. So if JBU worked for you, then I am satisfied. Thank you so much!”
I cannot begin to express how flattered I was to get such a wonderful message from her. This was her third novel and I have now read all three, loving each one. If you type in J. H. Trumble in the search bar you can find my reviews of each of her works. Do yourself a favor and read at least one of these books very soon!