Archive for November, 2010

“A Life Apart”–coming of age

Mukherjee, Neel. “A Life Apart”, Constable, 2010.

Coming of Age

Amos Lassen

Ritwik Ghosh is a twenty-two year old Indian who has lost his parents and moves form Calcutta to England in the hopes of finding a better life. One thing he has not done is to face his past and now he must do that because he cannot embark on a new future without doing so. He begins to realize that he and his mother shared an abusive relationship and the thought he would find a way in England to come to terms with it. He decides to heads for London, the big city, and try to find redemption there but that doesn’t quite work either. He finds that he is not really a member of society and he chooses to live with other immigrants instead of taking a chance on fitting into society. He tries his hand at writing his story now and with the help of an English teacher, Miss Gilby he begins finally to have a good hard look at his past. His landlady also proves to be a friend but suddenly everything changes.

One night while walking in London in a section known for criminal activity he meets a very strange person, Zafar bin Hashm who makes a great impression with his upper class behavior, rich clothes and mysterious aura. Now Ritwik must decide whether friendship here is good for him or not and how his life can change. This is beautifully written and works on many layers. I doubt you will ever forget Ritwik or the book.

Past and present come together as do wonderfully drawn characters. The relationship between Ritwik and Zafar remains enigmatic but we have to understand the background of both men. For those who have never been marginalized, this book has a great deal to say.

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“Kaddisn and Other Poems, 1958-1960”–perfect timing

Ginsberg, Allen. “Kaddish and Other Poems: 50th Anniversary Edition”, (The Pocket Series) with an afterword by Bill Morgan, City Lights Publishers; 50 Anniversary edition, 2010.

 

Perfect Timing

 

Amos Lassen

 

What perfect timing to come out with a new edition of “Kaddish”! It fits perfectly with the release of the film. ”Howl” about the author. “Kaddish” is the Hebrew prayer that Jews say when someone dies.

Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” is about Naomi, his mother and is one of the poet’s most famous poems. It is interesting that the original Kaddish does not mention death at all yet it has become an integral part of every Jewish service. Here it appears with several other Ginsberg poems and with a new afterward that is only available in this special edition. There are also photographs that have never been published before.

Ginsberg changed the face of poetry for many and is often regarded as the “father of the Beat Generation”. It is his works that heavily inspired the counterculture in the twentieth century. In this new edition we get the best of Ginsberg in a convenient pocket sized collection and when I got mine it was like seeing an old friend. We carried it around with us when we were in college and my copy had long been misplaced or lost.

“Kaddish” is not only about Ginsberg’s mother but about Ginsberg himself as well. His mother was mentally ill and of course that influenced her relationship with her son. Ginsberg wrote this after her death and in doing so he was saying goodbye to his mother for the final time. In writing about his mother’s life, Ginsberg also wrote about his own life especially his childhood and adolescence and we see how the mother/son relationship affected the poet’s writing. In writing about his mother, Ginsberg was also forced to look with himself and there are times we feel that he is analyzing himself as we read his lines.

Naomi Ginsberg was a schizophrenic woman in her later life and her struggle for normalcy weighed on her son. The poem is deep and sometimes shocking but above everything else it is real.

“Kaddish” looks at suffering and he tries to understand it and we feel the pain that he felt in dealing with a mother that was ill. But she was not always ill and when she had her sanity she taught her son about life and how to live; she in stilled values in him. Yet the poem is also more than an elegy for his mother. It looks at madness and Ginsberg shows the connection between madness and the modern world. We also feel Ginsberg’s loneliness that he felt came to him because his mother was set apart and the guilt feelings that he suffered because of it. He looks at death and in doing so he makes peace with his mother. This is an emotional look at mother and son and it deeply affected me as I am sure it will affect some of you. Remember though that you are getting more than “Kaddish” in this volume and therefore the little book has something for everyone.

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“The Anatomy of Ghosts”–an old fashioned thriller

Taylor, Andrew. “The Anatomy of Ghosts”, Hyperion, 2011.

An Old Fashioned Thriller

Amos Lassen

If you love thrillers that deal with the past, “The Anatomy of Ghosts” is the book for you. It has twists and turns, epic characters and an exciting plot.

In England in 1786, John Holdsworth was having a rough time economically so when a chance to make extra cash comes to him, he jumps at it. Lady Anne Oldershaw has lost her husband and he left behind a huge library which she wants to have catalogued before she donates it to Cambridge University. Since Holdsworth sells books, he seems to be a natural for the job. There is a snag though–he is to find Oldershaw’s son, Frank, who is in a mental hospital because he says he saw the ghost of Sylvia Whichcote. As he begins his search, things get quite strange. Frank is almost incommunicable and there appears to be a relation to the fact that Sylvia Whichcote, the wife of one of his teaching colleagues has been found dead. She is also haunting the school.

The situation takes Holdsworth to Jerusalem College and he finds himself in the company of some very odd people who are all involved in some kind of secret society, the Holy Ghost Club, at the college.

In Holdworth’s opinion, ghosts are the result of delusion and he wrote a book on that thesis. He discovers that the Holy Ghost Club actually is the administration at the school and soon Holdworth discovers that he is being haunted and his fate id determined. He has to find the person responsible for the death of Whichcote in order to stop the ghosts and their haunting.

There is nothing like a good ghost story on a cold winter night and that is what we get here. Taylor has a beautiful command of English and he is a master at both description and character building. The book is a wonderful thriller in the tradition of the old horror stories we heard as children and we also get a wonderful taste of life in eighteenth century England. There were times that I felt quite “spooked” as I read and that is rare for me. As for how this all ends, I am simply saying that it is quite a surprise.

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“Labour of Love”–the end of the trilogy

Labour of Love: A Novel by Doug Wilson

Wilson, Doug and Peter McGehee. “Labour Of Love”, St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

 

The End of the Trilogy

 

Amos Lassen

 

Doug Wilson was Peter McGehee’s partner and he used the notes that Peter McGehee left behind to finish the trilogy that McGehee began with “Boys Like Us” and “Sweetheart”. The characters from the other two books are back (those we did not lose to AIDS) and the main focus of this book is David who had once been Zero’s lover and is now battling AIDS. Zero has died and both David and Zero’s family in Arkansas are dealing with that. We are taken back to the period of what was going on as Zero was dying and again we get a look at the Toronto gay scene in the 1990’s. The novel follows the last days of Zero and what David went through as he watched him die and then drove to Arkansas to be with Zero’s family. Zero’s death was brought on by a brain infection.

While Wilson tries hard to keep McGehee’s humor in this book, we actually see an angry view of AIDS and this is probably because McGehee has succumbed to the disease and Wilson is also infected. This is certainly a more realistic look as we were all very angry when there was little or no help coming forward at the height of the epidemic. When Zero died, David had him cremated and Zero’s family wants the ashes so that they can bury him and David finally decides to send them only to find that the Canadian post office went on strike so David and a friend head to Arkansas to deliver them. But here is a surprise which I will not reveal.

Even though Wilson did not have the talent of McGehee this book remains an important look at the effect of AIDS on the gay community. We feel the author’s anger throughout (as we should) and if there is a message it seems to be to stay angry over the way that this was mishandled by those in power. Wilson also tells us to stay alive and to continue loving each other.

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“Sweetheart”–life despite AIDS

McGehee, Peter. “Sweetheart”, St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Life Despite AIDS

Amos Lassen

Peter McGehee continues the story of Zero McNoo that began in “Boys Like Us”. This volume looks at the time period from November of 1989 to May, 1990. Zero, constantly on the search for new “friends”, meets Jeff at a benefit for AIDS research and things seem to be quite serious for the two. Again AIDS is at the center of the novel and our wonderfully drawn characters talk about the men they have sex with, their lovers and their T-cell counts. They remember those who have already succumbed to the disease and they speculate on who will be the next to go. This may sound depressing but it is far from it has McGehee as a quick wit and great humor that he uses in his writing. What is interesting is the book is quite a funny take on a very serious subject and McGehee was fighting for his own life as he wrote this.
Zero is now HIV positive but that doesn’t mean his life is over—far from it. He and his friends have helped to open an AIDS clinic and there the doctors will work to administer a drug which stops AIDS related pneumonia in HIV positive men. Randy from “Boys Like Us” has died and Zero is working hard on building a life with Jeff. However there is an unexpected visit from Mary Bull whose fathers are Zero’s cousin and his partner Trebeh. We also go to Little Rock, Arkansas and meet Zero’s family and as the serious subject of HIV/AIDS is looked at with humor, we realize that even those that died had some life in them.


The book is important in that it is one of the first novels to deal with the epidemic and especially to do so with humor. It is a chronicle of what was and we hope will never be again but we must stop to remember what we lost.

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Amos Lassen
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“Boys Like Us”–love in the age of AIDS

 

McGehee, Peter. “Boys Like Us”, St. Martin’s Griffin (Stonewall Inn Editions), 1992.

Loving in the Age of AIDS

Amos Lassen

It is very easy to forget what it was like during the heyday of the AIDS epidemic. Today we don’t see what we once saw and the obituaries do not hit us in the face every morning like they once did. I was out of the country during that period but when I came home for a visit in 1989, almost all of my friends were gone and we lost the majority of the generation of men who would be in their mid-sixties and older today. The younger generation has no idea what it is was like back then but we should never forget what we lost to a disease that, quite possibly, could have been treated if the authorities had seen to do so. Gay men were not on their list of priorities.


Peter McGehee, a promising young author lost his battle with AIDS in 1991 and did not even live to see some of his books published. His voice was quieted forever but some of us are lucky enough to be able to read what he wrote. I regret not having known McGehee—he was born and raised in Arkansas but he had moved to Canada and died before I got here. In a way I feel that I know him through his writings which I am now going through (for some a second and third time) and I understand that a Canadian group is interested in republishing his work.


“Boys Like Us” was his first novel and it is basically a look at gay relationships during the time of AIDS. Although many stopped living, few stopped loving. Zero MacNoo is an Arkansas native and the narrator of the novel. Zero, like McGehee is an Arkansan who moved to Canada. Unlike McGehee who was involved in a relationship, Zero was involved several, His best friend, Randy, received a positive AIDS diagnosis and it is then that Randy realizes how much he loves him but he also has strong feelings for two others—his ex David, and a new guy, Clay. Then there his causal sexual encounters including a drag queen, Jesus Las Vegas. Zero ends up going home to Arkansas to the family we met in McGehee’s novella, “Beyond Happiness”.
McGehee gives us larger than life characters and he uses his wit and humor to tell this story. He gives us a look at a time that is quickly becoming just a memory and he does so in a way that makes us laugh and the book serves as a wonderful testimonial to a writer whose life was taken from us much too soon. McGehee is unsentimental as he looks at the loves of those that were ended by AIDS and would allow the virus to disrupt their lives and their loves. It is also a look at the gay culture of the time—the bars, AIDS, friends. The book is actually the first book in a trilogy and is followed by “Sweethearts” by McGehee and “Labor of Love” which was written by McGehee’s partner who survived him.

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Amos Lassen
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“Beyond Happiness”–growing up gay in the South

McGehee, Peter. “Beyond Happiness: The Intimate Memoirs of Billy Lee Belle”, Coteau Books, 1993.

Growing Up Gay in the South

Amos Lassen

One of the regrets of my life is that I did not discover Peter McGehee until about five years ago. I learned about him when I came to Arkansas in 2005 as a result of Hurricane Katrina, McGehee was an Arkansan who wrote beautifully and died way too soon. He died in Canada from complications from AIDS in 1991 and the majority of his written work was published posthumously. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in McGehee and his books are now due to be republished.I just finished reading “Beyond Happiness”, a novella that was published originally in 1985 and looks at growing up in the South. It is essentially a monologue about love, family and homosexuality and it is witty and candid. Being in Arkansas now, I have become familiar with the way Arkansans tells stories and it was easy for me to fall right into the narrative.



McGehee’s writes about his homosexuality but it takes a second seat to his family which comes across as being totally dysfunctional. The main character of the novella is Billy Lee Belle, who is, of course, the author himself. In the first paragraph, you know you are in for a ride when you read:


“My mother’s biggest fear was that I’d turn out gay. Her second biggest fear was that I’d write a book about it. Her third biggest fear was that I’d write about her, which is exactly what I ended up doing”.



But it wasn’t just his mother he wrote about—there is also his father who was destitute and a wild collection of aunts (and if you have ever had a Southern aunt, you know what I mean). McGehee is outrageous as he writes of his family and of himself and you will find yourself rolling with laughter as you read of his first experience in drag when he was nine years old and of his best girlfriend, Nancy Wackersly. In fact, I laughed all the way through the sixty-three pages and then read it again.


When we lost McGehee, we lost a wonderful talented writer and as I now make my way through everything he wrote (some for the second and third times), I can only think what he might have written had he lived. As an observer, he captured the flavor of Arkansas, as a person who lived it, he related it to us so that we can enjoy it and that I suppose is the key word–”enjoy’. His wit was wonderful and his observations are crystal clear. He gives us (and I use the present tense) an absolutely delightful reading experience.

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Amos Lassen
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