REVIEW: Idlewild by Jude Sierra

Idlewild by Jude Sierra (December 1, 2016); 250 pages. Available from Interlude Press at http://store.interludepress.com/products/idlewild-print-edition

Idlewild is the story of a Detroit restauranteur/widower who figures out how to rescue himself from isolation and loss after the tragedy of his husband’s death. (If that sounds like a metaphor for Detroit itself, well, maybe it is.) It’s also the story of a young guy trying to find himself, working his butt off to become someone he likes, and figuring out who he is. (If that also sounds like a metaphor for Detroit, so be it.) It’s the story of very different worlds meeting and working together, trying to resolve differences and make something great. And it’s kind of literally the story of Detroit itself, too, at least as a backdrop.

Asher and his partner John had opened Idlewild, a restaurant in the heart of Detroit, as their dream. But when John died suddenly, Asher wound up digging himself into Idlewild and losing almost everything—he’s since become estranged from John’s family and almost never leaves Idlewild (he lives above the restaurant, and when he’s not upstairs, he’s downstairs). He mourns alone, and works alone, even though there are lots of people around; as a result, he loses almost the entire staff who’d worked for him when John was alive, and must start fresh. He hires a new staff, which includes Tyler, a young guy from Detroit who’s trying to figure out his own direction. With Tyler comes renewal in all forms—both the restaurant and Asher are revitalized. Tyler goes through his own sort of revival when his life turns in directions different from what he’d originally planned. Though it only serves as a backdrop, Idlewild itself seems to be the key to all this change: it’s place where things happen, where new beginnings are possible.

What’s lovely in this novel is its care: both Asher and Tyler are drawn so sympathetically (a middle-aged man who’s grown prematurely old from tragically losing a man he loved, Asher struggles between past and future; Tyler is a younger guy trying to figure out where he stands between the privileged-but-sincere Asher and his justifiably-angry-and-less-privileged ex). Such great attention is given to their characters and histories. These guys make sense, and the reader can understand why they think the way they do.

The complexities these characters face are real, and extend beyond the personal. Or, rather, the complexities weave together the personal and the social/political, which is what makes them complexities in the first place. It also makes them good problems for narrative, since they’re not immediately and easily solved.

 

 

 

 

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Grow Up, Seriously Already

That title is ironic. Or it’s meant to be, anyway.

This afternoon, my wife and I drove down to Staten Island (about 1.5 hours away) to visit our friends, who have 3-year-old twin girls. I got home about three hours ago, and I need a nap. My wife just went to get a massage. Being around kids, even calm, well-behaved kids like these girls, is exhausting. This is an official shout-out to anyone who’s parenting actively: you are amazing.

We know some really not-good parents: they’re so tired, or so wrapped up in their own selves, or so mystified about how to handle tough situations with their kids that they just check out. The result is, often, rather ugly; we had one nine-year-old in our house throwing a tantrum because she hadn’t learned to occupy herself for an hour while her parents talked to other adults. (There were books here, and dogs and a cat, plus she had a car’s load of her own toys, and there is a big, fenced-in back yard… Plus a sink full of dishes and several loads of laundry that needed doing… I’m only sort of joking.) Her mother tried bargaining with her while her father ignored the whole ordeal entirely.

We know some really great parents, too. The parents we hung out with today, for instance, are great: they pay attention to their kids, but also manage to let them know that sometimes their attention will be on other people. They teach their kids how to amuse themselves (puzzles, books, coloring, playing with their dog–not plunking them in front of the TV, either).

My wife and I have chosen not to have children. Neither of us is so inclined, though both of us like our friends’ children and both of us have worked for 20 years with college-aged kids. But we know we just don’t have the energy or desire to devote to raising kids of our own, and since we’re monogamous lesbians, having kids would most likely be an active choice on our parts, one we’re able to categorically decide against. I like being an auntie instead–I’m “auntie” to several kids, and many more of my former students keep me around as some sort of friend-mom combo. I get all the fun parts of being around kids and young adults, with minimal poop and tantrums and guilt. (I’m not saying whose poop, tantrums or guilt it is… make your own assumptions, but I’ve watched enough parents to know the answers are probably not as obvious as you might assume. Also, please note that I have never been pooped on by one of my former college students–with them, it’s mostly the guilt and maybe the occasional tantrum.) I’ve had to give a few sex education talks and have spent more than one evening in an emergency room or at a hospital bedside. (Once, I had a student who had sickle cell anemia, and visiting him in the hospital during one of his more severe attacks was the hardest, most heart-breaking thing I can remember. My heart goes out to his parents.)  I do the worry thing, and the caring thing, and I get lots of rewards, but all parts of it, I imagine, are quite a bit less than they would be if I were a parent. Plus, with the older ones, I get to be a friend (one to whose advice they tend to listen), which means most of that stuff is given to me, too.

When my wife and I first got “married” (maaaaaaany years before we were legally married, of course, since that only just became a possibility, hence the quotation marks), several people asked us whether we were going to have kids. My wife has never wanted children, so the answer was pretty quick and easy to give. But we both began to feel really frustrated, because lots of people didn’t take us seriously because (1) we were not legally “married” and (2) we were non-reproductive (two uteruses, no testicles) and (3) we did not intend to bring children into our relationship at all. In many peoples’ eyes, you’re not an adult (and not in a “real” relationship) until you have children.

The combination of these 3 factors meant that, in many peoples’ eyes, we were not a “real” couple, even if those folks considered themselves enlightened enough to imagine a lesbian couple as potentially “real.” My wife has never wanted kids, and when she would say this when she was very young, everyone would tell her to wait until she was older, because her mind would change. It didn’t. From knowing young folk, I found out that a young woman in many states cannot get a doctor to tie her tubes until she is 25, because doctors do not want to help her make that decision “too early.” (Meanwhile, it’s fine for you to go into the armed services and kill people, sweetie, but we need to make sure there is at least the potential that we can knock you up.)

When you’re a lesbian, there’s an odd combination of sexism and homophobia (often called “heterosexiusm”) that comes to bear down on you. People assume because you are a woman you must have/want to have children, and if you are in a non-reproductive relationship, it is not real and, furthermore, you would have kids if you only could find a man to give you some genetic material with which to do it.

Understand: I am not vilifying anyone who chooses to have children. I know many, many fabulous parents who are making the world better by raising great kids. I am vilifying the notion that a woman must have kids, and if she does not, she is not a “real” woman and to be suspected of green-faced witchcraft; I am vilifying the notion that any relationship that is non-reproductive is not “real.”

My relationship with my wife has lasted longer than my parents’ (straight, reproductive, legal from day one) marriage.

I could go on for a long time and list out the relationships denegrated as not legit (non-monogamous, polygamous, non-reproductive, non-hetero, and in many cases, non-white and non-upper-middle class), but you can figure that one out on your own. I would, in tryin to make an exhaustive list, inevitably leave something out.

Points are:

  1. If someone defines their relationship or their being as important, then you best step to and respect it.
  2. Having kids is great, but not everyone needs to (or should) do it.
  3. Liking your friends’ kids doesn’t not equate to wanting your own.
  4. I like not having a lock on my toilet.

 

 

REVIEW: Flying Without a Net by E.M. ben Shaul

Flying Without a Net by E. M. ben Shaul (November 17, 2016); 300 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Two Jews walk into a bar… and one of them says, “Ouch!”

I have always thought that joke was hilarious and, being too young to perform Vaudeville (I was born in 1970, so I missed the boat), I have never before had the opportunity to tell it. But right now, I’m writing a review of Flying Without a Net by E. M. ben Shaul, a novel which tells the love story of Dani (an Israeli who has grown up in a culturally-Jewish-but-secular home in the U.S.) and Avi, who is a practicing Orthodox man. They meet, find attraction, and must struggle with the conflict between their relationship and Avi’s religious devotion.

(Actually, the joke I REALLY want to tell is “Who is Anette, and why is she so important to fly with?” but see how I’ve refrained?)

Avi and Dani don’t exactly walk into a bar, but they do go for coffee at a coffee shop which, at least in New York where I’m from, is kind of like a bar in the daytime. (I used to go to actual bars in the daytime, but that was back in graduate school, and was mostly to play pool. I do not recommend it, unless you are looking to hang out with some very questionable day drinkers. Yes, jokers, I do count me-at-25 among them.) These guys live in Boston, with which I’m not very familiar (except for experiencing some homophobia, bad driving and White Frat Dudes on the Loose while on vacation there many years ago), but I’m going to assume the equivalency holds.

In many ways, the novel is a version of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, recast as a coming-of-age (this can happen at any age, and for Avi, it happens rather late in life) story about a young religious man finding his world rattled when his sexuality (he’s gay) becomes more than theoretical. As with that novel, it’s epistolary: most chapters begin with a letter to God (from Avi). Avi’s trying to find his way into his newly-relevant sexuality (in the same way that Margaret is trying to find her way into her sex/gender). The story even, at one point, makes a direct shout-out to the book.

Avi’s family is large and very welcoming to Dani, and they embrace the budding relationship between the two men immediately, as does everyone in the novel. This is not a book that has dealings with the (very real) struggle against homophobia many of us face, or about the (very real) worries we queers have when coming out in our own communities and families, it’s a fantasy/love story.

While Avi is out to his family, he’s not had a relationship with a man before, and doing so constitutes another coming out, whether the character recognizes it or not… coming out isn’t a one-time deal; most of us queer folk come out over and over and over, in every new situation, every time we meet someone new, every time we figure something out about ourselves that our culture has worked very hard to prevent us from coming to know. That experience  is very particular to being queer and hard for most other folks to recognize. But this novel isn’t about that, or about homophobia, or danger of any kind; it’s about the struggle to reconcile one’s faith with one’s desires, and that struggle is pretty universal, something nearly anyone can recontextualize and understand on their own terms. And that struggle is no joke.

REVIEW: Luchador by Erin Finnegan

REVIEW: Luchador by Erin Finnegan (November 3, 2016); 244 pages. Available from Interlude press here: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/printed-books/products/luchador-print-edition

When I was a kid, my dad spent much of the weekend parked in front of his TV, watching WWF pro wrestling. To this day, the sound of screaming men gives me hives. But the stories the men acted out were compelling, despite the too-long sweaty hair and weird unitards and hoarse shouting. Even I, as a kid, knew it was all show, but there was something that grabbed both me and my dad (and lots of other Americans, too).

Luchador dips into the world of showy wrestling and heightened storytelling, but it’s luchadores in Mexico, not the bastardization that is American pro wrestling. While the novel itself maintains a calm dignity in its storytelling, the stage on which the characters live their lives is bananas. Gabriel, orphaned and raised by his aunt and uncle (I can’t help thinking about Superman here) wanders into the world of professional luchadores and, with the mentorship of a handful of seasoned wrestlers, becomes one himself. The novel follows his rise to stardom as El Angel, a much-admired masked wrestler who plays a be-winged, glittery angel who’s still really tough (kind of like the Biblical archangels, who were depicted as scary-tough-dangerous). The story also traces his search for an apt love—like most of us, he has to comb through some mistakes (too immature, deeply closeted) before he finds the right fit.

The story is, on many levels, about finding this right fit, not only in terms of his suitors, but in terms of his career and his place in the world (a narrative, not uncommon for an orphan in fiction, with a great literary tradition).

Along the way, El Angel must wrestle with how he’s portrayed by the industry, since wrestlers marked as “gay” (which he is) are usually marketed as “Exóticos”, the flamboyant, referee-kissing, feather-boa-wearing stereotypes we gay folk have dealt with for a long time (sexually predatory on innocent str8 folks, showy, too femme or too butch, etc.). As with many gay folk confronted with a culture/industry’s attempts to write the terms of how we’re portrayed and understood, Gabriel/El Angel must determine how he sees himself, and how he will be understood by others.

(I want to be clear that it’s the forcing of a persona upon someone that’s the problem, not the flamboyancy of the persona. It’s just as bad when someone who wants to be feminine is discounted and not taken seriously as it is when someone who doesn’t want to be feminine is forced into it. It’s about self-determination, and all too often that’s a simple right that’s denied those of us who are gay. This novel recognizes that, and focuses on Gabriel’s desire to define himself, rather than on his desire to be defined as macho instead of fey.)

There’s plenty of wrestling action for fans (well-described, with a touch of insider-realism) and plenty of plot action outside the ring to keep anyone not-fan hooked. Luchador is a fast-paced novel that’s interested in both a good plot and well-developed, complex characters.

REVIEW: Sideshow by Amy Stilgenbauer

Sideshow by Amy Stilgebauer (August 25, 2016); 192 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Abby Amaro does what everyone threatens to do at some point in life: she runs away with the circus. But unlike most of us (okay, well, at least unlike me), she doesn’t have many other options. She’s stuck with Frank, an emotionally-abusive and violent jerk who proposes marriage and doesn’t take it very well when she refuses. She’s a woman, an opera singer, in the 1950s. So she must leave her family behind, and her brother helps her abscond with a travelling circus.

She falls in with the sideshow carnies, and eventually meets the strong woman Suprema, and the two strike up a tentative, quiet romance. There are, of course, hurdles: she can’t quite connect up with her family from the road until it’s too late, she’s stuck rooming with a hostile burlesque performer, and even Frank rears his ugly head at one point. Troubles notwithstanding, Abby finds her sea legs (her trailer legs, anyway) and finds new connections and a new home.

On some level, this is about being Good by the standards of the moment. Good isn’t the same as good-to-yourself: Good for women at the time is forgetting your career, marrying the appropriate person and washing his socks without complaint for the rest of your life. Abby isn’t, apparently, such a good girl. I mean, she’s good, she’s just not Marry-a-Man-Even-though-He-Cheats-and-Have-No-Life-of-Your-Own-Because-Men-Are-Hard-to-Get-and-More-Valuable-than-You Good.

The characters here are well drawn—sympathetic or hateful (or sometimes a combination of both) without being too simple. The situation is the same—the novel takes the old “running away with the circus” trope and gives it real life. There’s lots to like here—not the least of which is a compelling situation and engaging plot.

This is a seamless story: believable, well-paced and involving. It’s about Abby finding a way to be happy, to do what she loves, even if it’s singing from the bally box instead of La Scala, or falling in love with a muscled woman instead of a philandering man. It’s about being strong and creative enough to do that.