Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Strange Male Porn

I wrote an earlier post on what seems to me a queer (as in weird!) phenomenon, the man-2-man pornographic romance novel written by women for women. My head gets a little twisted just thinking about it. This is strange male porn, indeed.

The latest novel I've read in this genre is Caught Running, Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux, Dreamspinner Press, 2007. It is the story of two baseball coaches in a high school in Georgia, one a jock, the other a nerd. Add a lot of sensitive introspection, a huge dose of male insecurity and 107 pages of narrative before the first kiss, and you have a romance novel. The first sex scene starts on page 120.

But the sex is not something either John Preston or Bob Vickery would write, or even Victor J. Banis. The scene is very long (one page of foreplay, four pages of "sex," and three pages of afterglow). The writing isn't particularly hot, but very mutual, caring, and supportive - not at all like gay porn. Do women really read this? I read some of the reviews on Amazon, and the ladies evidently eat this up. Even some of the gay guys ate it up, although the most literary gay review made the point that the book was obviously not written by a gay man, and the book truly is a romance and written for women.

This really is strange male porn. The men have feelings as well as penises. They fall in love, rather than lust. The sex, while being rather complete in description does not for the most part consist of hard, throbbing members and tight white-hot holes. And that's just the way the ladies want it.

Bronski Buzzkill

I'm reading another (old) anthology, Flashpoint: Gay Male Sexual Writing, edited by Michael Bronski. Bronski is one of my favorite gay social critics. His introduction writes about the nuances of the categories of sexual literature - smut, porn, and erotica. All have become value-laden terms, and he uses "sexual writing," instead.

Bronski focuses on sexual writing as an opening to understanding our own sexual fantasies, longings, and behavior. He challenges the reader to get beyond the jerk-off nature of the porn tale, and test how the writing resonates in our own minds and cultural context. Bronski is simply one of the best social commentators

And that's the buzzkill. I'm reading a hot story, but carefully thinking about its characters. Is that me on that bed? Am I really making a shopping list while we're having sex? Why am I enjoying this scene? And if I think about sexual writing, I lose my erection, because thought requires a lot of blood in my brain, and something in my physiology has to fail when I think and analyze my sexual behavior, played out on a page.

Sexual writing gives me a palpable thrill, until I think about it. Some of the writing is very good, and most is not. A strange paradox for me is that the trashy, steamy stuff, written simply to get me off without thinking is more satisfying than the more literary sexual writing (I do have a brain!). I want sex to take me into the realm of suspended thinking, a place of hormonally crazed action and pleasure. And if I have to think about that, I get a headache.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The real missing text in Brideshead Revisited

More so than whether the two boys were … or what they did … or whether they did, I would have liked to have read about Sebastian's tutorials—what they were like: did he bring Aloysius with him, did he and Aloysius talk about how tiresome their tutor became when he "pressed" a point, how Sebastian (with or without teddy) might have fared against the likes of Butley (to mix ages and genres) and so forth. Waugh could have stolen a march on Kingsley Amis and given us a lead into the academic novel. More realistically, perhaps, I do regret Waugh's not having given us that scene when Charles forbade Sebastian his rooms at the end of their first summer term so that he might stay up late, cramming himself with neglected texts, in order to pass his first schools. I miss it (and conceivably Waugh didn't write it) because I can't imagine it, there's no other conversation that Waugh presents that gives me an ear for it. By contrast, what don't we see of Falstaff? Well, supposedly Falstaff in love (as Her Majesty is reported to have said). If King George had been more of a reader, we might have had The Merry Laddies of Oxenford.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Companion to Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited"

Greetings, Fellow Bookmen--

While searching online for the definition of a particularly obscure (to me, anyway) reference in our current novel, I found a "m-m-m-most m-m-m-marvelous site"--as dear Anthony Blanche might describe it, though of course he would never need it! Anyway, I commend it to you all:

http://www.abbotshill.freeserve.co.uk/AmContents.html by David Cliffe

You can even search the British and American editions (which I haven't done yet, but one day hope to do).

Cheers, Steve

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Last of the Wine

Mounting the Acropolis for the first time last month, it occurred to me to reread Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine. I'd read all of her historical novels and this had always remained in my memory as her best. It was her first (historical novel), written in 1956, after her initial six lesbian/hospital series, and immediately after her unique contemporary gay novel, The Charioteer (which we read some years ago). It covers the last thirteen years of the Peloponnesian War and the full run of the pederastic relationship of the narrator Alexias, from boyhood to manhood. "Gay" characters (I of course use the term loosely) occur in all her historical novels but this is the only one that centers on a relationship of classical pederasty.

What I particularly like about Renault's historical novels is that they are not costume dramas. Her characters are not Englishmen traipsing about in sandals and chitons. Her historical novels read as though that bourgeois concoction was in use some 2200 years before its invention in the eighteenth-century. Her style can seem elusive, even cryptic, but that's usually because of her fidelity to her characters' mentality and times. Some things are glossed over because any contemporaneous reader would need no explanation; others are touched on only lighty because none would be wanted. Additionally, Renault herself often writes allusively and laconically. An incident briefly mentioned on one page can be significantly alluded to a hundred pages later. One has to be attentive.

Looming behind the historical events in Athens and the fictive stories of Alexias and his lover Lysis is the figure of Socrates and the themes of courage and virtue. It is no sin for Lysis and Alexias to have sex (and you might not even realize they have when you read about it) but it's a falling off from their ideal, like going on a bender when you only meant to go out for a drink.

Part of the pleasure of reading a historical novel is being put into the mindset of another age. Another part, if one knows the details of that age, is simply (simple-mindedly?) checking them off as one comes upon them, somewhat akin to one's experience in reading a novel that takes place in a city one knows well ("oh yes, there's such and such and a few blocks on they come to that infamous locale" etc). I'm sorry not to recommend The Last of the Wine for group discussion (we've already read two Renault's, The Charioteer, and the weak middle of the Alexander triology), for I would like to hear, among other things, how well others who are not so familiar with the period enjoyed reading it as a novel. Purists of the old school could get quite persnicketty about these extra-literary elements but like the paradox of the heap the line dividing the literary from the extra- can be arbitrary or vague. If you know the extra-literary elements, your enjoyment of the work may be enhanced, and if others know them and enjoy them as well, you have a community of readers.

For the record I might state that the one competitor for Renault's best historical novel might be Fire from Heaven ... but I'll have to wait till I've visited Pella to reread that.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Boys in the Band — DVD

Quite apart from William Friedkin's effective filming of the play, this new DVD is worth renting for the features—on the play, on the movie, on the aftermath—which have been bundled together by CBS Home Entertainment (though there's little chance of your seeing them on WUSA even at two o'clock in the morning). Watching it, I'm struck by this famous passage of Harold's, cooly responding to Michael's "warning":

Are you now? Are you warning me? Me? I'm Harold. I'm the one person you don't warn, Michael. Because you and I are a match. And we tread very softly with each other because we both play each other's game too well. Oh, I know this game you're playing. I know it very well. And I play it very well. You play it very well too. But you know what, I'm the only one that's better at it than you are. I can beat you at it. So don't push me. I'm warning you.

What is this game? the game of annihilation? No doubt that's a game Michael plays and, as it turns out, Harold can play too, and better, but is there any reason to suppose it's Harold's game the way it is Michael's? What's more, Michael doesn't push him further, yet Harold rounds on him shortly thereafter and demolishes him. Doesn't quite add up to my mind.

Marchmain Madness

Will I be able to find something not covered here!?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Elio as narrator

As I said at the meeting, I read Call Me by Your Name eighteen months ago. It had been given to me by my X, ever vicariously nostalgic for my high-school romance. I enjoyed reading it but thought it most interesting and memorable for its last section, the coda. It was only this I reread before the meeting, not feeling the urge to revisit the main story and wanting to wait and hear what others had to say about it.

Though almost everyone at our meeting liked it, many seemed to have vague reservations, something along the lines of the whole failing to be more than the sum of its parts, or even of not clearly adding up at all. In rereading the penultimate third section I'm inclined to agree.

I mentioned at the meeting that it is not merely Elio's story, it is told in Elio's voice, and that we shouldn't simply fault Aciman for details Elio chooses not to tell us, such as what he's been doing the last twenty years, what his present occupational status is, etc (even less so his failure to rhapsodize on the beauties of Liguria).

I had noted in my first reading that the first night in Rome is the last time Oliver and Elio "make love" (the passionate, public kiss on the via Stanta Maria dell' Anima) but had failed to appreciate, until somebody mentioned it, how bizarre it is that nothing further is said about this in the remainder of the book. What does it say about Elio and his experience, his story, that he relates nothing about their last two days in Rome?

Much of Elio's silence(s) may speak volumes about him but I have lost faith in Aciman that this is artistically conceived. It's either a cheap trick at dimension, a failure of imagination, or meer authorial laziness. In any event, for all the intriguing silences in Elio's narrative, I'm inclined to feel now that it doesn't add up and that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

I'm even beginning to have darker feelings about this novel being deeply (cheaply?) exploitative of gay experience in the guise of a romance for straight (women?) readers and gay (romantic?) men.

Nevertheless, it's well-written (though Steve may yet reveal how mistaken we all are in this view) and thought provoking, and I'm sure that in the fullness of time—even perhaps in the foolness that remains of my life—I will spend another summer on the Italian Riviera.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Votes Are In!

Fall 2008-Spring 2009 Bookmen DC Reading List

9/17 Between Men: Best New Gay Fiction, pp. 163-250
10/1 A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
10/15 Men of Mystery, pp. 117-184
11/5 Dude, You’re a Fag by C.J. Pascoe
11/19 Freedom in this Village, pp. 255-330
12/3 Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
12/17 Between Men, pp. 251-330


1/7 Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums
1/21 Men of Mystery, pp. 185-275
2/4 Gay New York by George Chauncey
2/18 Freedom in this Village, pp. 331-444
3/4 The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead by William Burroughs
3/18 The Man with Night Sweats by Thom Gunn
4/1 Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima
4/15 The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Great discussion of "Call Me by Your Name"!

Greetings, Colleagues--

Ten valiant Bookmen, a near-record turnout, gathered last night (9/3/08) to discuss Andre Aciman's novel "Call Me by Your Name." There was clearly a wide range of reactions to the work, but I think it would be safe to say that we all found it well worth reading and enjoyed a particularly lively discussion.

As someone who was less impressed by the novel than most of those present (though I did enjoy it), I have been challenged by a fellow reader to cite some passages that I found memorably infelicitous (so bad they're good? :-). I want to take a little time to sort through the many worthy contenders for that distinction before posting a few; but first, in the spirit of fair play, let me share a passage from the final few pages that I thought was truly wonderful:

"I tried to picture his happy family, boys immersed in homework, or lumbering back from late practice, surly, ill-tempered thumping with muddied boots, every cliche racing through my mind. This is the man whose house I stayed in when I lived in Italy, he'd say, followed by grumphy harrumphs from two adolescents who couldn't be bothered by the man from Italy or the house in Italy, but who'd reel in shock if told, Oh, and by the way, this man who was almost your age back then and who spent most of his days quietly transcribing The Seven Last Words of Christ each morning would sneak into my room at night and we'd fuck our brains out. So shake hands and be nice." (p. 243)

Other than correcting "bothered by" to "bothered with," I wouldn't change a word. :-)

Cheers, Steve

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Plug from the List

Going through the proposed list for future discussions, I've read And the Band Played On, Confessons of a Mask, The First Verse, The Object of My Affections, A Single Man, and The Wild Boys. Of these, the one I'm most keen on re-reading and discussing is Barry McCrea's The First Verse. We read an excerpt from it, generally liked, in Fresh Men. That excerpt was a little misleading in that most of the explicitly gay stuff was cobbled together into a "story". But the novel's through-line of obsession and pursuit is so profoundly homosexual—or even human!—that it makes John Rechy's novels look like childrens' counting rhymes. I'm not generally interested in re-reading the others (or in the case of the McCauley even discussing), even though I love A Single Man and would look forward to a discussion of The Wild Boys (an intriguing amalgam of pornography, fable, and textual mindwarp).

We haven't considered hardcovers before, mostly to prevent price from being a barrier to anyone's attending. That rule might be relaxed for an especially timely book or one that might never appear in paperback. Neither The Indian Clerk, however, nor The Story of a Marriage qualifies for such exception. Lambda Rising does offer a 20% discount but that is only available to people who are already attending our meetings (and have picked up a card—and remembered to take it with them to the store).

Finally, since it was I who suggested Blackbird and Wolf, I feel I should confess, having looked at both, that I think The Man with Night Sweats is the better choice, both on the merits and as a follow-on to our reading of Boss Cupid. (I think either more appropriate than the Mary Oliver.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hidden History on The New Gay Net

Our very "own" Philip is now a weekly columnist on The New Gay ("for everyone over the rainbow"), writing about DC's "Hidden History." Quick, read his first column about Pornograpers & Poets today—the second comes out tomorrow! A few more clicks will lead you to discover the general value of this website, which accurately bills itself as "An Online Resource for Alternative Queer Events and Ideas in Washington DC."

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Hail, Fellow Bookmen (of Mystery...:-)

Greetings, Colleagues--

While turnout was low for last week's meeting, those of us in attendance enjoyed our discussion of Will Fellows' book, A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture.

This coming Wednesday, July 16, we will gather to discuss the selections found on pp. 53-116 of the anthology Men of Mystery: Homoerotic Tales of Intrigue and Suspense (edited by Sean Meriwether & Greg Wharton).

Don't forget that we have shifted our discussion of Thom Gunn's final poetry collection, Boss Cupid, from July 2 to August 6. The book is available at Lambda Rising for a mere $3.98 (and that's before the 20% discount). When I went by LR last night, there were 7 copies left, but at that low, low price they may not last!

Looking ahead: I am in the process of putting together a list of titles for the next iteration of our reading list and would warmly welcome your nominations, particularly for anthologies of poetry, short stories and essays. All titles should be in print and available in paperback; if you can provide a capsule description and/or links to online reviews, that would be great, but it is not required. I'd like to have all suggestions by August 1, sooner if possible; please e-mail them to me via this site (they'll be automatically forwarded to me) and we'll go from there.

Cheers,Steve Honley

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The New Gay Teenager

Thanks for your kind comments, Steve. I'm looking forward to many more years of thoughtful and stimulating discussions. And on that note, I'd like to call everyone's attention to a recent "Pride" article by Kenji Yoshino (author of Covering, a book we all liked) on the new gay teenager, the older gay community, and the surrounding homophobia in which we all live. "They're Queer, And They Don't Need Us ... Or Do They?" appeared recently in The Advocate. Note his praise for Ritch C. Savin-Williams' The New Gay Teenager. I think we should put this book on our next reading list.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Greetings from your new facilitator (aka benevolent despot)! :-)

Greetings, fellow Bookmen. I want to thank Tim Walton for the great job he's done in leading meetings and keeping us organized for the past three years. He will be a tough act to follow, but with his help--and yours--I'll do my best. (I'm delighted to report that he will remain active in the group.)

As I hope all of you already realize, last night was our last Tuesday meeting, for which we had a good turnout and a lively discussion. From now on, we'll meet on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, but still at the same venue and still following the current list of titles. Thus, our summer meetings will now be on July 2 and 16 and August 6 and 20.

Looking ahead: Our current reading list runs out in September, so I'll soon be putting out a call for recommendations and then tabulating your votes. Stay tuned...:-)

Hope to see you soon!

Steve Honley

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building is the title of an Egyptian novel published in 2002 and of a film released four years later. Alaa el-Aswany's novel tells the stories of some half-dozen contemporary inhabitants of downtown Cairo. I found it interesting but not compelling. Usually I try to give a novel and its film some inbetween time, whichever I experience first. For reasons I can no longer remember (perhaps because I wasn't that impressed with the novel or didn't expect to be with the movie) I didn't and I saw the movie a week after I'd finished the novel. The novel and the film have been wildly popular in Egypt. That's certainly one reason to read and see them, i.e. if you have an interest in Egypt or Arab culture more generally. Another is that one of the novel's main characters, Hatim Rasheed, is homosexual. Hatim is a successful newspaper editor. He's not "out" (nobody apparently in Egypt is) but he's unmarried and makes no pretense of being a ladies' man. After years of various failed arrangements he hopes to mentor a young man into a lifelong companionship. Not that the young man need live with him (that would be asking too much!) but that he might become near, dear and particularly attentive. Hatim thinks he has found such a companion in the person of a policeman, whose career and marriage (!) Hatim promotes. None of it however works out and Hatim is sad, aging and lonely at book's end. Reading The Yacoubian Building will take you back to sometime in the early last century. El-Aswany does not introduce Hatim to damn him, but whenever he writes about his condition there's much talk about "the homosexual". These passages read as though they were put there to enlighten an uninformed but excitedly curious public.

The movie is almost three hours long. It's striking how effortlessly exotic it can be, just the sights and sounds of Cairo bring that about. Most of the novel reaches its apogee of unfamiliarity merely in the characters' names. Viewing the movie I was continually struck by how much had been left out and how confusing it might be to a naive viewer, but that underspecification might have given it a mysterious momentum which it lacked for me. The homosexual Hatim is of course in the movie too, but cinema being a more popular genre it's not enough that he be left sad, aging and lonely. A hustler (the cutest actor in a decidedly uncute cast) sees to it that Hatim has an appropriate terminus.

Bottom line: the book and the film are must read/see if you're interested in homosexuality in contemporary Arab culture. Otherwise, stay home and re-view The Children's Hour.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Covering" — obligatory reading!

Our man from the Tar Heel State informs me that Kenji Yoshino's Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights has been chosen as this summer's obligatory reading for incoming freshmen to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I couldn't agree more. I expect everyone at our last meeting would concur. It's one of the best books we've read. Do take a look at it—even if you aren't interested in civil rights!