April 17, 2014

‘Army of Lovers: A Community History of Will Munro’ by Sarah Liss

Posted on November 14, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

It’s been over three years since Toronto lost queer artist, activist, and community builder Will Munro to brain cancer at the age of 35. The full title of Sarah Liss’s collective memoir in tribute to Will, Army of Lovers: A Community History of Will Munro, the Artist, Activist, Impresario and Civic Hero Who Brought Together Toronto’s Club Kids, Art Fags, Hardcore Boys, Drag Queens, Rock ’n’ Roll Queers, Needlework Obsessives, Limpwristed Nellies, Stone Butches, New Wave Freaks, Unabashed Perverts, Proud Prudes and Beautiful Dreamers, unabashedly encapsulates not only Will’s spirit and whimsy, but that of the communities to which he belonged and which he helped fashion. (more…)

‘Twelve Views from the Distance’ by Mutsuo Takahashi

Posted on November 3, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

Katsushika Hokusai is best known for “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” a masterpiece of Japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e. And even though “The Great Wave” was a part of a series, Thirty-Six Views of Fuji, it has almost eclipsed the rest of Hokusai’s work.  Similarly, the poet Mutsuo Takahashi is best known for his homoerotic poetry, particularly the thousand-line “Ode,” which has drawn comparisons to Walt Whitman’s work for its merging of the sacred reverence and corporeal pleasure.  (more…)

‘Lasting City: The Anatomy of Nostalgia’ by James McCourt

Posted on October 26, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

Slipping riotously through time like a virus loose in the bloodstream and touching on everything from show tunes and divas (the variety that plays the Met, not top 40 radio) to cruising spots and tanning advice, does James McCourt’s latest book, Lasting City, live up to its cheeky designation: “The anatomy of nostalgia”? Absolutely. (more…)

‘The Greek House : The Story of a Painter’s Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos’ by Christian Brechneff with Tim Lovejoy

Posted on October 19, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

From the moment I read the first line of this book, In those days, everyone knew everyone on the island, I was hooked and found it un-put-down-able. Ostensibly a recounting of a young painter’s discovery of a Greek island and his life in a house overlooking the Cycladic Sea, the book is far more. It’s a mythic tale of finding; of an artist’s development; of sexual and romantic unfolding and, ultimately, of strange, mysterious tides which shape us all, currents formed as much by fate, as by choice. (more…)

‘How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits’ by Duncan Fallowell

Posted on September 28, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Nonfiction

In five distinct chapters woven together through a deep sense of nostalgia and a detective-like wistfulness, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits by Duncan Fallowell offers the reader a glimpse into what it means to be (and to search for) those that have been forgotten, either through time or because of their own reclusiveness.
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‘Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes’ by Kamal Al-Solaylee

Posted on September 24, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

Intolerable (Harper Collins) is remarkable. One of its most striking qualities is that unlike most coming out or coming-of-age tales, Kamal Al-Solaylee doesn’t limit his scope to his personal story. Writing in light, quick prose, he situates this vigorous narrative of sexual self-discovery and odyssey within two larger themes. Like cupped palms, they overlap and encapsulate a unique journey. (more…)

‘The Asylum’ by Simon Doonan

Posted on September 24, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Nonfiction

Barneys Creative Ambassador-at-Large Simon Doonan has made a name for himself in what he describes as his “jarring and punky and intentionally shocking” window displays. In his new book The Asylum, a collection of fashion-related autobiographical essays, Doonan also continues to make a name for himself as a writer. A few years back, I particularly enjoyed his memoir Nasty (also published under the title Beautiful People) which offered a glimpse of his escape from Reading to London in the swinging 60s. Like that book, The Asylum lovingly embraces eccentricity with cheekiness and sharp, observant descriptions. I wouldn’t jump to call his books warm, but there is a warmth to them and Doonan’s writing—a “wave of solidarity,” an understanding of outsiders and an appreciation for kookiness. (more…)

‘A Heaven of Words: Last Journals, 1956-1984′ by Glenway Wescott (edited by Jerry Rosco)

Posted on September 15, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Nonfiction

May 13, 1972

Everyone knows what a novel is, what biographies,
autobiographies and memoirs are—but what is a
journal? It is an immensity that is always (and has to be) fragmentary.

Glenway Wescott penned his journals in a substantially different tone than the formal control of his few novels, but the entries reveal a mind that was constantly gathering material and considering the potential for literary work. In addition to revealing some of his thought processes, the content of his final journals, A Heaven of Words as edited by Jerry Rosco, cements Wescott’s significant role in gay cultural history. Rather than resolve the often-asked question why he published so little during the last 40 years of his life, Rosco uses Wescott’s journals to gently argue that Wescott continued to write at a high level and that his journal was a valuable project worthy of a thoughtful writer’s ongoing effort.

Glenway Wescott was born in Wisconsin in 1901 and met his life-long partner, Monroe Wheeler, as a young man. Living with Wheeler in Europe, Wescott became known during the 1920s for his well-received novel The Grandmothers. He became friends with expatriates such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald while the homophobe Ernest Hemingway viciously parodied him in The Sun Also Rises. In 1930, after returning to the United States, Wescott published The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story, which critics and readers continue to praise as a gem-like masterpiece. He then took another 15 years to write the popular novel Apartment in Athens. While later writing some small works and producing many essays, Apartment in Athens was his last major published work.

Jerry Rosco knew Wescott and has edited his first set of journals, Continual Lessons: The Journals of Glenway Wescott, 1937-1955, and has written a detailed biography, Glenway Wescott Personally. Summarizing Wescott’s life from these two previous works and the final journals requires major name-dropping. For example, Wescott and his partner Wheeler lived in a three-way relationship with the photographer George Platt Lynes for a number of years before Lynes separated from them. (Wescott and Wheeler’s multiple relationships are documented throughout A Heaven of Words.)

While Wheeler thrived as a director at the Museum of Modern Art, Wescott expanded his cultural circle at the Academy Institute of Arts and Letters. The journals are full of references to artists and writers such as Paul Cadmus, Jean Cocteau, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Truman Capote, and Katherine Ann Porter. Wescott worked with Christopher Isherwood to publish their mutual friend E. M. Forster’s Maurice posthumously. And he worked for years on Somerset Maugham’s biography at the same time that he maintained a long-term professional and personal relationship with Alfred Kinsey, while assisting in his sex research. A number of recent biographies about Samuel Steward, Lincoln Kirsten, and Leo Lerman offer additional evidence about Wescott’s artistic and literary station.

The journal offers so many references that Rosco has wisely included a 13-page list of more than 200 names and very short biographies, a veritable “Who’s Who of Modern Cultural Life in the Twentieth Century,” at the end of the book to remind us who some of these people are.

Wescott’s short entries remain eminently quotable, almost as though he is commenting on our current events, such as our fascination with reality TV, “With reference to our literary and artistic situation, I said, ‘The chief enemy of quality is quantity.’ ‘No,’ Monroe said, ‘the chief enemy of quality is novelty.’”

Another entry seems to predict the “deep captioning” that Instagram and People magazine now expressly offer:

[Re: a photo of flamboyantly-dressed heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier with the newspaper caption “The Day After.”]

Captions: the future role of writers (perhaps) in a picture-oriented world.

A minor theme of Wescott’s later journals appear to be his fear of death before he can finish another work of quality, ”… I am inclined to think that, in the end, I shall be known not for [the Maugham biography], not for The Grandmothers or Apartment in Athens, but for my so-called journal, marginal pages or half-pages about this or that, some of them only half written.”

But he also recognized that he might no longer able to satisfy his readership, “The fiction writer’s pleasure as a rule is the feeling that he is giving pleasure to the reader.”

And ultimately, perhaps Wescott felt that he might enjoy indulging in an active intellectual and sex life (Wescott and Wheeler continued their open relationship into their final years) more than in creating a fictional world, in the journals, he states, “I live novels instead of writing them.”

Because of his familiarity with Wescott and his milieu, Rosco has been very judicious in his selection of entries for A Heaven of Words. While shorter than Continual Lessons, the later journals offer evidence of Wescott’s vast interests and ability to think critically. Rosco’s selections reveal important information about Wescott yet allow Wescott’s great ideas and minor foibles to become visible.

Finally, A Heaven of Words reminds us that it’s not important what Wescott did not write in his later years, but that he spent years working on these illuminating journals. After reading The Pilgrim Hawk (and perhaps the short story “A Visit to Priapus,” which will finally become widely available in Rosco’s upcoming collection of Wescott’s short stories), the journals offer a more complete assessment of the writer.

 

 

A Heaven of Words: Last Journals, 1956-1984
By Glenway Wescott (edited by Jerry Rosco)
University of Wisconsin Press
Paperback, 9780299294243, 272 pp.
June 2013

‘Lawfully Wedded Husband: How My Gay Marriage Will Save the American Family’ by Joel Derfner

Posted on September 9, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

Joel Derfner, in Lawfully Wedded Husband (The University of Wisconsin Press), has crafted a compelling memoir of love and family enriched by social history, politics, and sharp commentary on the state of our popular culture. Derfner’s story is primarily a chronicle of the journey toward marriage that he has taken with his partner (now husband), Mike, an accomplished (and very patient) psychiatrist. But there are several other stories here: each man’s experience of marriage within their own family histories, the history of marriage equality itself, and then the story of the challenges and pitfalls of Joel’s participation, while planning the wedding, in the reality show Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys. Derfner is an engaging storyteller, and while his sense of humor is ever-present, he never lets it diminish or undermine his discussions of the book’s more serious subjects. This is a book that is more about reality than reality television.
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‘American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, the Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement’ by Hilary Holladay

Posted on September 4, 2013 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

Herbert Huncke, heretofore a footnote in biographies of the Beats, has long deserved his own biography, and in American Hipster (Magnus Books), Hilary Holladay, a renowned Kerouac scholar, has given us a fascinating portrait of the man who gave the Beat movement its name. Born in 1915, Huncke was raised in Chicago by ill-matched middle-class parents who separated in the 1920s. His childhood was marked by anxiety, and an understandable compulsion to escape from home where his mother burdened him appallingly with complaints about her sex life with his father. The one adult who appreciated Herbert was his maternal grandmother. Huncke recalled that they “loved each other and were happy together but my father resented the idea—telling her she was making a goddamned sissy out of me—to leave me alone.’” (more…)