Friday, July 31, 2009

Maurice by E.M. Forster

This gay classic has been on my to-read list for years. I liked it upon finishing the book a week ago and I find that my appreciation grows as I reflect upon it. The happy ending is particularly striking, considering that it was written in 1913 (although not published until after Forster's death in the early 1970s).

Forster had this to say (in a terminal note): "A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn't have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows. [...] Happiness is its keynote -- which by the way had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish."

Maurice Hall, the central character, was not particularly likable at first but as he comes to accept his homosexuality and become more aware of what is going on around him and is honest with himself, I grew to admire him.

The writing style pleased me very much. For example, when Maurice meets a flamboyantly gay man, Risley, for the first time: "[Risley] made an exaggerated gesture when introduced, and when he spoke, which was continually, he used strong yet unmanly superlatives. Chapman caught Maurice's eye and distended his nostrils, inviting him to side against the newcomer. Maurice thought he would wait a bit first." That scene sprung vividly to life for me in just three sentences.

Maurice falls in love with Clive Durham, who comes from a class above him. "Clive's great-great uncle had been Lord Chief Justice in the reign of George IV, and the nest he had feathered was Penge. The feathers were inclined to blow about now. A hundred years had nibbled into the fortune, which no wealthy bride had replenished, and both house and estate were marked, not indeed with decay, but with the immobility that precedes it." (It is interesting that the book I read directly afterwards was Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, which opens in 1919 with the introduction to a house which will fall to ruin. More about that book in another post.)

The young men in Forster's novel use admiration for Tchaikovsky as a code in much the way that 'a friend of Dorothy' has been used in more recent times. I understood that because I am aware that the composer was gay. What went over my head (until further research upon completing the novel) is why Risley called Tchaikovsky's Symphony Pathetic 'Symphonie Pathique' instead. A pathique (or pathic) is a sodomite.

I highly recommend Maurice for anyone who loves language and a Jane Austen style of relationship story. Also suitable for high school students who are looking for gay-themed novels.

Friday, July 24, 2009

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg

Matt Pin had a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier father. He was airlifted out of Vietnam at age 10, looking more like a six-year-old. Two years later, now in Grade 7 and living with loving American parents who have adopted him, Matt still has nightmares. He also deals with racism at school, where at least one student believes it is Matt's fault that his older brother was killed in Vietnam. Matt's story intersects with the lives of vets who are also having difficulties dealing with the war upon their return home.

Matt is the star pitcher on his school baseball team and has also begun taking piano lessons. Music soothes him like nothing else can. The novel is told in free verse format with five small lines underneath each poem. It took a little while for me to realize that this stylish convention represented a musical staff. The image of a bass clef is also repeated through the story and I took it to represent the Vietnam war and how it maintains a steady presence, even when it isn't carrying the melody.

A touching story with a contemporary feel, despite being set in the 1970s. Mixed heritage readers will likely be particularly interested, as will children who know people currently serving in the armed forces overseas. Grades 4-7.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tale of Two Summers by Brian Sloan

I'm now blogging about a teen novel written in the form of a blog; a first for me. Chuck and Hal are best friends spending their first summer apart since they were five. They are now 15. Chuck is attending a teen theatre camp while Hal attends driver's education classes in their little hometown not far from Washington D.C.

The author's twist is that Chuck, the emotional and dramatic one, is straight and Hal, the grumpy one who cares nothing for style, is gay. (Hal came out to Chuck six months earlier.) Chuck sets up a blog so that he and Hal can not only keep in touch over the summer, because telephone access will be limited for Chuck, but also so that they'll have a record of their adventures that will be more permanent than email. It's an epistolary novel for the 21st century, I guess.

It was interesting reading this back-to-back with My Father's Scar (see previous post), which was written a decade earlier. Both are about gay male teens experiencing first love. And that's about where the similarities end. The time period is so different, for one thing; the 1960s versus 2006. Coming out was much more fraught 50 years ago. Hal does have to negotiate some of that, but it is a tiny part of the story. Mostly, Hal and Chuck are both dealing with the sorts of feelings that every teen goes through in the romance department no matter towards which sex they are attracted.

Another difference is that the strong language published in teen novels of today (i.e. motherfucker) was not much used in novels 10 years ago, regardless of the setting. Although Andy Logan in My Father's Scar seems not the sort of boy who would have used profanity anyway.

Here's an excerpt from Tale of Two Summers:
"When his lips finally found their way to my mouth, I was instantly sprung. I mean, it was so damn hot! Then, as if that weren't overwhelming enough, Henri rolled right on top of me, and you know the hell what? He was not wearing any underwear at all. Nothing! I know this because I went to put my hands right on his glorious ass and that's exactly where they landed -- right there on his bare ass! His real, fleshy, French ass, with no jeans or shorts or underwear to keep me away. It was all ass!!!"

Since Hal's love interest is from Paris, (his mother is a diplomat), French is sprinkled here and there in the novel in a charming way. Which reminds me that there was an annoying typo in My Father's Scar: "plus c'est change" instead of "plus ca change." I was more bothered, however, by a racial slur against First Nations people in Tale of Two Summers, where one friend accuses the other of tomahawking him. Sloan could have used a neutral expression like "knife in the back" or "attack" instead.

Teens who are curious about intimate sex stuff (uhhh, are there any that aren't?) will find much to keep them hooked in Tale of Two Summers. Most embarrasing moments, wet dreams, premature ejaculation and what sorts of things two guys do together in bed; details are shared. It's a light read and My Father's Scar was much more to my taste, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this one.

Other recent fluffy gay romance titles include Two Parties, One Tux and a Very Short Film About the Grapes of Wrath by Steven Goldman and My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger. Similar also in some ways -- friendships between teen boys and frank, first person narration -- to novels by John Green, Tim Tharp and Barry Lyga.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Father's Scar by Michael Cart

A nuanced and moving account of a young gay man growing up and coming of age in the 1960s. Andy Logan is 18 and in his first year of college, looking back on episodes in his life from age 11 onward. He was a fat bookworm with low self esteem and no friends, but that began to change when he was 12. Later, Andy has a crush on an older boy who goes to the same church and then he has his first physical relationship with another boy, one who is very different in temperament from himself. As he reaches adulthood, he is beginning to deal with the damage wrought upon his psyche by his abusive, alcoholic father.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

I had expected a decent teen fantasy from Wrede, seeing as she's the author of such fine novels as Dealing with Dragons and Sorcery and Cecelia. The first in her new Frontier Magic series transported me far beyond my expectations. A quote from Tamora Pierce on the back cover sums it up better than I could: "It's a fascinating adventure in an America where an 'unlucky' thirteenth child finds her own magic on a frontier where the dragons and the mammoths play."

Recommended especially to readers looking for something along the lines of Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, Kristin Cashore's Graceling or anything by that master of heroic girls wielding magic, Tamora Pierce.

The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa

A poetic Korean coming-of-age story set in a small village and told in graphic novel format. As the season of spring rains come around each year, Ehwa grows from a girl of 7 to a young woman of 16. She lives with her widowed mother who keeps a tavern. Ehwa's heart is divided between two boys while her mother longs for a travelling salesman who comes through only occasionally. I was surprised to learn that the author is male, since the book has quite a feminist sensibility. I especially enjoyed learning about everyday Korean life as it was lived two generations ago. First in a trilogy. Adults are just as likely to enjoy this as are teens.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

In the far north of Australia, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the tiny town of Desperance doesn't appear on any map. That's because the name was officially changed to Masterton - but any road signs are destroyed as soon as they are erected. The white townfolk are set in their beliefs and don't care for change of any kind. Racism is as much a way of life for them as swatting mosquitos and sweating in the oppressive heat.

Aboriginal folk live in two camps on either side of the town proper, where the white folk dwell. Desperance is the closest town to a giant mine newly built by a multinational corporation. The issues of land rights, environmental concerns and employment opportunities are central to the story. The Aboriginal families have been feuding for 400 years; Norm Phantom and Joseph Midnight are the elder patriarchs of either side.

Norm's son, Will Phantom, is one of the main opponents of the mine and does what he can to sabotage its construction. He has also fallen in love with Joseph's grand-daughter, Hope, which causes his father to disown him. Will has to abandon Hope and their young son when mine officials are hot on his trail, but his dream is always to reunite with them. Meanwhile, the mining company resorts to dastardly deeds of retaliation.

Aboriginal author Wright was awarded the Miles Franklin Literary Award for this lyrical and sweeping saga. I found it a bit difficult to get into because the narrative is so very nonlinear, but by the time I was 100 pages in, I couldn't put it down.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland

Where do all the lonely people come from? Coupland has an answer to the question from the Beatles song: from regular North Vancouver families. Liz Dunn knows what it's like to be lonely all the time. She is short and fat and has never had friends. Her life changes, however, when she gets a phone call from the hospital. Her name was the emergency contact on a young man's medic alert bracelet -- a man whose name she had never heard before. A sweet and funny story about finding one's place in the world.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

Literary detective Thursday Next's fourth adventure has her searching obscure western novels for a rogue Minotaur, battling the Goliath multinational corporation for the return of her husband, entertaining Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, on his first visit outside of BookWorld -- all while dodging assassination attempts and worrying about the outcome of a professional croquet match that may lead to Armageddon.

If you haven't yet read any of Fforde's satirical alternate-history fantasy series, I suggest that you start at the beginning with The Eyre Affair. May you find them as hilarious as I do.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett

Three French children assist a young English soldier who has deserted his duties during WWI. A powerful, yet gentle, story for readers of all ages; Grade 3 and up.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

Mrs. Hawkins is a young war widow working as a copy editor in London in the 1950s. She is pestered by Hector Bartlett, a bad writer looking for an introduction to the boss of the publishing firm where she works.

"Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.
'Mrs. Hawkins, I take incalculable pains with my prose style.'
He did indeed. The pains showed. His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words."

I just loved the voice of Mrs. Hawkins. She eventually becomes so annoyed that she calls him a "pisseur de copie" to his face. This action is immensely satisfying to her, but Bartlett makes a formidable enemy.

I'm grateful to Nancy Pearl for having recommended this in her picks for summer reading. A Far Cry From Kensington would be a good match for someone looking for something along the lines of Diana Athill's Stet.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

If you enjoyed Adiga's White Tiger, winner of the Man Booker Prize last year, then you will probably like his new collection of gritty short stories. They are set in the Indian southwestern coastal city of Kittur, during the time period bracketed by Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984 and the assassination of her son, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991.

Caste and social class continue to play an important role in modern India. These stories are mostly about the underdogs of society, the hard-working (and sometimes not-so-hard-working) poor, and all but two of them focus on men rather than women or girls.

I discovered that, even though I prefer (in general) reading about the lives of women, my very favourite story is "The Sultan's Battery," in which a snake oil salesman goes out of his way to help a young man who has no one else to whom he can turn.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke with Adiga on June 21, 2009.

The Slow Fix by Ivan E. Coyote

Ivan Coyote is a storyteller who was raised in the Yukon and now lives in Vancouver. This is her 4th collection of short stories... or should I say "his"? Ivan addresses this question in the piece titled "Imagine a Pair of Boots."

"I have always felt this way about gender pronouns, that 'she' pinches a little and 'he' slips off me too easily. I'm often asked by well-intentioned people which pronoun I prefer, and I always say the same thing: that I don't really have a preference, that neither pronoun really fits, but thank you for asking, all the same. Then I tell them they can call it like they see it, or mix it up a little if they wish."

The stories may be familiar to you if you are a regular reader of Xtra! West, since earlier versions appeared in Coyote's Loose End column. They are always good for a chuckle and certainly worth reading more than once. Check out the Xtra website and do a search for her name, if you want a sample. And watch for your next opportunity to hear him live, which is a huge treat.