I tried to catch up on the batch of grown-up books that have been staring at me over the year. Summer holidays and a vacation to Newfoundland provided me with a range of fiction, nonfiction, poetry (and one middle-years’ title) that carried me throughout August (and a bit into September)
SHOUT OUT: Learned a wonderful word that was featured in Brian Bilston’s poetry collection Alexa, what is there to know about love?
(noun, Japanese: the act of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.)
August 1: HOLA PAPI by John Paul Brammer
John Paul Brammer has a very popular advice column “Hola Papi” where he gives advice to young queer (and some straight) people. Brammer questions his authority to help others. The 15 chapters in this book take us through the author’s journey as a biracial Mexican American, closeted youth in Oklahoma to many hookups and love affairs (many through the Grindr app). This autobiography provides the author with the opportunity to tell stories about his past and his becoming the person he wants to be. In answering questions that come his way in his capacity as a professional advice-giver to LGBTQ people (How do I let go of a rotten relationship? How do I become more confident in my identity? Brammer analyzes his own life and views of the world as he attempts to find answers to questions drawn from his own questions, aspirations, relationships. I think this book has a specific audience, i.e. those who would want to write a letter to an LGBTQ advice columnist. That’s not a bad thing.
August 2: ALEXA, WHAT IS THERE TO KNOW ABOUT LOVE? Brian Bilson
In this slim collection of poetry (89 pages), Brian Bilston shares his views about love (And other things) in very very funny, and very very brilliant word play poems, each about a page in length. Whether one is a poetry lover or not, we tend to find pleasure when we ‘get’ what is being said and with each of these poems you quite gasp at the clever use of words and poetic form.Bilson, the author of You Took the Last Bus Home (loved it!) is a word magician. I was great that I got the joke in each of the 52 poems (or at least 50 of them!). Here’s a taste from a poem called ‘Lonely Hearts’
Woman, thrice widowed,
seeks man for love, sex, marriage
and possibly more.
looking to find her Basil.
No thyme-wasters, please.
with a fondness for rambling,
would like to meet a
August 4: BATH HAUS by P.J. Vernon
Oliver decides to cheat on his partner/’husband’. The adventure in the Bath Haus ends up with being strangled and with bruise marks clearly evident Oliver ends up telling lies… and lies.. and lies to protect himself and to hold on to his picture-perfect partnership with Nathan, a surgeon. I haven’t read a thriller in a long time, and as the plot unravelled and escalates with twists, sex capades and threats, i found myself immersed in gripping read, intriguing until the very end.
August 7: PUTTING IT TOGETHER: How Stephen Sondheim created Sunday in the Park With George by James Lapine (Nonfiction)
I am a fan of Stephen Sondheim’s work. Sunday in the Park with George is at the top of the list of my favourites of his. It’s certainly in the top five favourites of my theatre-going career. The cast album featuring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters would be desert island choice of music favourites. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen a number of productions of this Pulitzer Prize winning play. I weep / get goose bumps whenever I get to see a performance. Those goose-bumps reappeared as I read this staggering document of the making of this musical masterpiece, bringing George Seurat’s masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte to life. Told mostly through transcribed interviews with the cast and creative team and producers of the musical from it’s inception off-broadway to its broadway run of 604 performances, James Lapine, who wrote the book and directed the musical details the agony and ecstasy of putting it together, bit by bit. It’s hard not to quote Sondheim but the journey of this piece puts readers inside the experience of understanding that ‘Art Isn’t Easy’ . Definitions of dedication, sweat, perseverance, collaboration, revision, creativity, invention, reinvention, resilience and art-making are illuminated within this story of theatre-making. Standing ovation – and goosebumps – from me, Mr. Lapine. And of course to Mr. Sondheim. And of course to George Seurat. I so look forward to reading this book again, but in the meanwhile, I have the CD to keep me company. BONUS: The script version of the play is presented in the final third of the book.
August 8: POEMS BORN IN BERGEN-BELSEN by Menachem Rosenaft (Poetry)
Menachem Rosenaft, the son of two Holocaust survivors, is a member of the World Jewish Congress and teachers about the law of genocide at Columbia and Cornell universities. Rosenaft was born in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany. This collection of 82 poems, some very short, none more than 2 pages, portray the horrors of genocide, prejudice and hatred. Especially poignant are poems paying tribute to his five-and-a half-year old brother who was separated from their mother and murdered in a Birkenau gas chamber. This anthology deserves prominence in Holocaust literature through anger and through sensitivity, through powerful imagery , imagery and deep emotion, often directed towards God. (excerpt: You who sits in heaven/ hide Your eyes/ as forever tortured soulds/ become immortal/ in the shadow of charred bones/ unpurged of their crucible/ still reeking of zykon-b...)
August 12: GODSPEED by Nickolas Butler
Every since reading Shotgun Lovesongs, I have been a fan of Nickolas Butler’s work and was pleased to dig into the author’s recent release. Butler stories seem to be about male bonding (straight male bonding) and about particular American landscapes. Godspeed is the Story of Teddy, Bart and Cole who form a company called True Triangle Construction. They are hired Gretchen, by a very beautiful, very enigmatic and very wealthy to complete an architectural masterpiece in the mountains of Jackson, Wyoming. For reasons not made evident, the project must be completed in a matter of months. The trio is lured to meet the challenge because it promises a huge bonus that will change their reputations and their lives. Will they complete the project by designated deadline? And at what costs. The mystery behind the project, architectural details, the personal risk-taking for each of these men (one single, one divorced, one married) as well (spoiler alert) violent and traumatic episodes of Butler’s narration makes this a compelling read.
SHOUT OUT: August 21
SHUGGIE BAIN by Douglas Stuart
The writing is staggering. The story is harrowing. For certain, the best book I’ve read this year, sure to be #1 on my favourites. I’ve. been ‘warned’ that this book is very sad, and there is no doubt that the details of Agnes Baines alcoholism is heart-wrenching and the struggles of working-class families in 1980’s Glasgow is startling. But young Shuggie Bain adores his mother and even when his mother’s life and his family is on the brink of collapse, Shuggie clings to a sense of pride that bring a flash of hope to the darkness. Each of the 32 chapters reads like a short story, and if there was ever a discussion about making this book shorter, I can’t think of one chapter that would be considered for elimination. Yes, a masterpiece.
two excerpts from page 346
“… he looked like a half-shut penknife, a thing that could be sharp and useful, that was instead closed and waiting and rusting.”
“When he went to the house, she was snoring in that thick ay he had come to despise. He knew her head was backwards off the edge of the bed, and that her larynx was struggling to cope under the clogged bile of last night’s drink>”
Winner of the 2020 Booker Prize
This was the 200th book I’ve read since Lockdown, March 2020.
August 30 A TRAVELLER AT THE GATES OF WISDOM by John Boyne
Boyne is a favourite author, and once again he entertains in this inventive narrative that spans the course of two thousand years. Characters that we meet in the opening chapter appear in alternate, but familiar, identities in each of the stories that move from A.D. 1 Palestine to A.D. 2016, Palestine. Each chapter is about 8 pages in length, reads like a short story, each filled with details of time and place and culture; craftsmanship, lust, and revenge. Around the world in 447 pages, 50 chapters, Oh how clever you are, Mr. Boyne.
September 2: UNDER THE IRON BRIDGE by Kathy Kacer
Kathy Kacer is a very special author who bringing Holocaust history to today’s middle-age+ readers. She does her research. She is an expert storyteller. Kathy Kacer is a model author of historical fiction. The setting of this book is Dusseldorf< Germany 19=38. The story is centred on Paul who is under pressure to join the Hitler Youth which challenges his ethical beliefs and leads to some decisions that has an impact on those who are important to him including school friends, parents and Jews. Kacer presents the true story of the rebel group known as the Edelweiss Pirates who were set out to undermine Nazi t power. Kacer has written over 20 books that focus on stories of the Holocaust ( The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, The Brave Princess and Me, The Brushmaker’s Daughter, Broken Strings (with Eric Walters). I’m so fond of this new book, not only because it emotionally took me into the history and cruelty of Nazi threats but it was a story of taking the courage to stand up and fight for what you believe in, a theme that resonates for today’s and tomorrow’s generation. “I am a passionate advocate for stories about the Holocaust. I think the lesson we can learn – lessons about hatred and power, but also lessons about compassion, strength, and selflessness – are lessons for the ages?” (from Teaching Tough Topics, 2020, page 69)
September 5: THE GUNCLE by Steven Rowley
When their mother passes away, 6 year old Grant and 9 year old Maisie become the ward of gay uncle (Guncle) Patrick who 8s well-settled into being a retired television celebrity living a rather rich life in Palm Springs California. Patrick sets out to help his niece and nephew deal with their grief (and his own) and along the way provide. provide them with some cultural knowledge, gay and/or otherwise. Patrick Dennis book Auntie Mame delighted me in my younger days as I yearned for an adventurous life that Auntie Mame offered her nephew. This book is somewhat comparable but I wasn’t enamoured with this book that seemed at times unbelievable’ and I didn’t have as much fun as the trio seemed to be having. At times when Rowley seems to reach for an emotional grasp, his narrative changes course (infatuation, a proposed comeback, family reconciliations, partying). I wanted to like this book. I didn’t.