Saturday, August 13, 2016

Book Review
One of These Things First: A Memoir
by Steven Gaines
(Delphinium, 2016)

Publisher page:

I started my own coming-out process at around 19, though nothing is ever sharply or simply delineated that way.  Maybe it began when it dawned on me that "gay" applied to me, or when I stopped telling myself that maybe there was a girl out there who would make me certain I was bisexual (never happened).  Or maybe it was in younger childhood, when I had crushes on boys but didn't have the conception that such a thing was possible.

Is this a coming-out memoir?  Basically, though more in its coming-out to oneself than to the world.  In Gaines' story, it is his own fear and disgust at his own gay identity with which he must contend.  He does this in the face of a certain Jewish conservatism, a less-understanding time, and pre-enlightened psychiatry.  We are fortunate to have this book, because it is a story of a man who came of age before homosexuality was removed from the list of mental disorders, and then spans the time afterward (briefly, in the final chapter). 

So real were the adolescent physicalities of desire that I instantly found myself present in mid-century Brooklyn, side by side with the author.  Chest-to-chest is a concept similar to my own painful yearning for other males as I was growing up.  I had my own lawnmower boys, some stronger presences in my mental obsessions than others, and the reaching out and the eventual crawling inward.  No, my life is not a mirror to Steven Gaines', but there are enough points of connection that this story spoke to me deeply.

I won't go into specifics of the story, as I too had very little foreknowledge of what I was going to be reading.  "Gay autobiography" is enough for me to open a book, and when the writing is as immaculate as this, I'm in for the full ride.  I wanted the book to go on longer, but perhaps that was not the story Gaines wanted to tell.  Or perhaps he'll gift us with another volume.  I'm on board should that happen.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

New Kids on the Block's Hangin' Tough by Rebecca Wallwork (to be released 4/21/2016)

Odd, perhaps, to see a review from a 45-year-old man for a book such as this, but I'll offer my defense, should it seem necessary: at age 19, during the same year that the New Kids on the Block became famous with Hangin' Tough, I was beginning my journey out of the closet.  I was the same age as Jordan Knight, on whom I was seriously crushing.  I fell in love with these guys, knowing full well how cheesy their act was, and reveling in the shock people felt when I told them that I, a college-radio DJ into everything from Black Flag to Sonic Youth to Public Enemy to...well, hey, my tastes were quite broad.

Therefore, I figure, given how I wasn't able to explore my relationship stuff back in my early adolescence, there must have been some of that energy still going on for me.  I also learned that my very broad taste in music is tied to my complicated personality, but no need to get into that here.

I call it a defense jokingly, of course.  I'm not really shamed by it or embarrassed. I wouldn't have stooped to calling myself a "Blockhead," because I've always (perhaps to my detriment) resisted tribalism, especially silliness such as that.  I was even a more devoted Iron Maiden fan (kind of still am) but I never wanted to be called an "Iron."  Or whatever.

I bring all of this up because the most interesting part of this book is the cognitive science aspect of it, how music can have a dopamine-release effect on us humans, and how emotional things which happen when we are young teens are amplified for various reasons, and hence when we hear the songs we loved at that age we react more strongly than we might as an adult to a new song we hear and like.

We also get a bit of history of the band's development and of Maurice Starr, the band's genius founder and director, plus some quick fan-type reactions to the songs on the album and some discussion of fan/band relational reactions. 

I'm not sure we get a proper analysis of the music on the album, but that's okay.  It was an enjoyable enough read, if not entirely well-focused.  My three-star rating could be 3.5 just because I still have a bit of that fanboy in me, and no, I'm not embarrassed about it.

(With gratitude to the publisher and NetGalley for providing an ARC for this review.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Guapa by Saleem Haddad (2016)

I'm thinking about this book and my frustrating experience reading it, and it's difficult for me to shape a review for it. I guess I'll just plunge forward.

Saleem Haddad is very skilled in painting a scene's setting. My brain had no trouble filling in the details as Haddad provided everything necessary while never getting boring in his descriptions. In slums, checkpoints, fancy hotels, apartments, dorm rooms, campuses, diners, bars...I never once had trouble, and I have extreme respect for this skill.

Also, the sensual scenes between Rasa and Taymour were just lovely, leaving me wanting more. I mean seriously, but enough said there.

So what we have in Guapa is a story of injustices, power struggles between people, intolerance, governmental abuses, family tragedy, and the confusion of growing up different.

A very worthy endeavor.

We're served a journey in Rasa's mind, a journey in which he philosophizes and rages (though also illuminates with some very nice anecdotes throughout). At times, at least for me, I need to retrace steps to remember where the novel was in its present-time, which wasn't a problem, but it's also not ideal in the flow of reading to be right at a crucial point of action or dialogue but first get moved into another flashback. Lots of good material in the flashbacks but the execution felt messy and even sometimes muddled.

By the end I was quite weary of an endless parade of one-dimensional characters who served as examples of the types of attitudes Rasa encounters in his living. One horrible person after another, often delivering a self-righteous speech with very little context to trigger it. Many unresolved threads (Like I said, the book was frustrating for me) and a melodramatic, unsatisfying ending.

Saleem Haddad is an incredibly strong writer, and I'm hoping his follow-up is more successful than Guapa.

With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this book.
The Other Catholics: Remaking America's Largest Religion by Julie Byrne, (Columbia University Press, to be published 5/24/2016)

My own spiritual journey has gone all over the religious map, but my childhood was within the framework, if loosely, of the Roman Catholic church.  I was baptized as an infant, we went to church weekly, and I went to catechism (CCD) classes most of my young life.  In 8th grade I attended a Roman Catholic school for one year.  In my 20s I felt called to become a priest in that church, though I didn't get very far along that path.

One of, if not THE, most important message of this book: "Catholic" is not - NOT - shorthand for "Roman Catholic."  Some use it that way, and it's important to realize that for the sake of communication.  However, while Roman Catholicism implies Catholicism, Catholicism does not imply Romanness.

This is huge.  Even if we don't change our word usage, the meaning is vital.

"Other Catholics" refers, here, to all the Catholics who do not claim Romanism.  Specifically, this simply means they are not answerable to the Pope.  These churches span the ideological, theological, and political spectra.  They can be very strict theologically or quite syncretic, bringing in various mystical truths from a variety of seemingly disparate traditions (they aren't THAT disparate, but opinions will vary).

Julie Byrne's primary focus is on the more liberal churches because, as she clarifies, these are the ones with the most influence really, the change-makers.  Frankly, I'm glad, because they are also the more interesting in my opinion (and I don't merely lean Liberal...I own property there, so I'm biased).

Even more specifically, Byrne centers her social study on the Antioch church, founded by Herman Spruit with roots traced all the way back to the Reformation.  Through this lens, we get a nice journey through religious history, and so at least for me, one of my passion pairings, history and religion, was feed generously.  I really enjoyed this book.

At a personal level, in reading the book, I feel inspired to re-integrate Christianity into my spiritual path.  This includes Catholicism itself.  The ritual, the sacraments, the holy orders therein.  A Christianity which allows me the freedom, without outside pressure, of exploration within and without the specific traditions.  A Christianity in which my mother or my sister could become a priest or a bishop should they feel called to do so.  A Christianity wherein my queerness is not only accepted, but is exhalted in the celebration of marriage, should I feel called (and partnered) to accept it.

The weaknesses are minor: there were many repetitions of stories, and redundant re-uses of examples, which I felt grew tiresome at times.  But this is easily forgivable, given how the complicated history is navigated here.  This is a solid four-star book, and I recommend it to anyone who has interest in the topic.

My gratitude to the publisher and to NetGalley for allowing me to read an ARC of this book.  It is forthcoming, and I have already pre-ordered a copy for my personal library.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Liberator, Vol. 1: Rage Ignition by Matt Miner (2014)

I'm happy I purchased this book back when it came out; the message is spot-on and it's the kind of work I really want to support.

The art is mostly great.  I especially love how Damon is drawn.  If I was much younger I'm sure I'd want to "ship" him with someone (I mean, I'm surely too old for that now, right!) but there's not really anyone to do that with in this comic, unless I did hetero-shipping, which, you know, like, ew.


I'm in that mode because this is definitely a book geared to the younger set.  The young teen set.  I would have loved something like this as a kid.  Not because it's great storytelling (because it's not), but because it would satisfy my own rage.  Rage is the theme of the book.  Rage is not really explored, but it is the theme.  It's presented, and very briefly, a character or two thinks about the implications of it.  But it would be an overstatement to say it is explored.

Bits of plot are thrown in to justify (and this leads to watering down) the actions of the characters.  Do the actions need justification?  Maybe not.  But for some reason Matt Miner thought it important to add sexual abuse to the past relationship of a fur-farm overlord and our hero, which allows for a bit of moralizing of "are you doing it for the animals or are you doing it for yourself?"

See, I know this is for kids, and possibly the kids who haven't had much experience in life at ALL, because life isn't compartmentalized like that.  The argument is false.  If you care deeply about animal rights and how they are treated, then anything you do on their behalf is also something you're doing for yourself.  It's not exactly healthy to somehow slice those things in half.

And idealism in itself isn't a reasonable justification for anything.  You separate your ideals from your heart and you're on the path to a happy dystopia, whatever the parallel would be to oligarchy, but with treatises leading the way instead of corporations and profit.

I'm making this too complicated, of course.  The story is simplistic and, toward the end, rushed.  We hit "the end" after big revelations are thrown at us and never developed.  The bad guys are ridiculous, exaggerated caricatures of demonic terror.  The characters soapbox a lot but never develop much beyond that.  I commend the message; I'm there with the creators here.  But I can't bring myself to inflate my review just because I share an ideology. 

PS: this edition comes with bonus features, like any good trade paperback: cover gallery, "pin-ups," some good (some not good) bonus stories from different creators, articles about different action groups.

PSS: I always love to see projects of the heart see the light of day because of Kickstarter and other similar programs.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Cages by Dave McKean, Collected in a single volume in 1999

High on the wonder that was The Sandman, but near the end of my first phase of comic collecting, I started grabbing the first issues of Cages when they were being released, but stopped, and due to their odd physical shape and my constant moving, they became damaged and it appears I no longer have them.  I finally, over twenty years later, remembered that I haven't read these yet, and now I feel like a fool.

I mean, how had I gone so long without bathing in this wondrous work? 

Seriously, I mean, how?  Wit and one else needs to try to put those two together, because McKean already perfected the damn thing.  Or am I being ironic in saying that?

Cages touched me philosophically, artistically, emotionally, spiritually.  And who's to say those are really separate categories, or, ahem, separate cages?

We can stop caging things, and ourselves.

At one point I paused in reading in order to do some writing of my own.  See, I was inspired, and I was actually happy with what I had written.  If you know me, you know that's rare.

I just read a nice review I'd like to share with you all.  It was written back in 2002 (still a decade after the work was done).  Now, I see that they are doing a new printing of the full collection later this year (I saw that on Amazon myself).  Anyway, check this out:

Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman: Bruce Wayne, Murderer? (New Edition) by Various Writers and Artists (2014)

I've come and gone into and out of the comic book hobby since the late 80s when I was a teenager discovering that yes, I too could become obsessed with a hobby now that I'd outgrown being a lead singer in an air-band. The danger of leaving and returning, though, is that titles one used to like will become huge families of titles suddenly, and it's daunting to catch up. This is why I am very grateful for big omnibus kinds of books like this. During the period when the whole "bat family" (I don't recall that concept from the late 80s) is trying to figure out what happened that led to Bruce Wayne being framed for a murder, continuity apparently required that he be dealing with that issue in all the Bat-titles. So thank you, D.C., for helping me out here. I'll never catch up, but I can at least enjoy some storylines this way.

The creators did a nice job NOT being too jarring, it turns out. Good teamwork, good editorship, perhaps? I admire it though, regardless. The shifts in visual-art style was the only off-putting thing here, but I'm a grown-up and can adapt. I won't say I liked the styles in their entirety, but I must stress that this is not a criticism, but more about preference, though I wondered how the more cartoonish styles were supposed to fit with the writing at times.

The only storyline I didn't care for was that of Nicodemus. His motive was familiar and cliche. The story felt tired. I was also unsure of why (begin spoiler)around that phase of the book Bruce Wayne decided that he was not to be Bruce Wayne anymore and all of that - it seemed more like a way they could bring Batman back into the titles for fans to see their Batman kick-butt stories while still dealing with the murder frame-up storyline (end spoiler), but perhaps the next volume, which I will definitely read, will reveal something about this.

I have to say I really enjoyed the way the Bat-family has fleshed out. I like the characters, and the roles they have taken on. They have a really great team of writers and artists across the board. Reading this volume brought me back into the real of actually liking mainstream comics again. Most of my comics reading is more adult lately, fewer superhero titles. It feels like kind of a homecoming for me.