April 30, 2009

Blood Hunt by Ian Rankin writing as Jack Harvey (Orion Books 1994)

You know that a book written by a one-time punk musician is going to have street cred, though what else it may contain is anybody’s guess. In this case, intelligence, suspense, and some fun political theorizing. Scotsman Reeve is a former SAS officer who trains weekend warriors in the art of tracking and overpowering imaginary enemies. He doesn’t know how handy those talents will come in until he receives a call saying his journalist brother has been found dead in San Diego. The web Reeve unravels to find his brother’s murderers is long and sordid, and would do any conspiracy theorist proud. For the most part, it’s amusing to watch Reeve at work in this tale of physical and intellectual warfare. Rankin has a big reputation among the thriller set, and it’s deserved, though the downside is that the writing doesn’t shine. Words have no importance here—one can just as easily be substituted for another with no detriment to the book. The story’s the thing, and it moves and moves, though if it stopped moving, it would very likely collapse. There’s a lot of sound and fury signifying little, apart from some brief philosophising on the nature of power.

An acquaintance and I once discussed our respective literary tastes. His litmus test was The English Patient. He wouldn’t credit the taste of anyone who admired that book. Ironically, it was also my test. I couldn’t credit the taste of anyone who didn’t understand what makes it great. It’s not snobbishness; it’s about values. In TEP, words are magic. Or rather, how they’re used is the magic, since few words have currency on their own these days. If you have a tin ear for words, the writing won’t entice you. “What about The Great Gatsby?” he asked, not knowing he’d touched on my ne plus ultra. “It’s pretty boring,” he said. To him it was simply a story about a love triangle. Or rather, two love triangles that bisect, with a narrator standing outside each squaring the hypotenuse. Seen in that way it would be pretty boring, but if you have an ear for words, it’s magic. While Rankin’s story rocks, his ear for words is the equivalent of punk music. It’s about raw, primary power, not subtlety and certainly not magic.

April 29, 2009

The Violet Quill Reader, Edited by David Bergman (St. Martin's Press 1994)

The 20th Century was dotted with literary groups (Bloomsbury, Stein's Paris Circle, the Harlem Renaissance, etc.) Many of these influenced the course of literary history; all were dominated by gays and lesbians. (Yes, all--check the rosters, if you don't believe me.) The Violet Quill met only eight times between 1980-81, yet it was the first official group created with the express aim of writing to and for a gay readership. The seven men who comprised the VQ--Felice Picano, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, George Whitmore, Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro and Michael Grumley--all met in a personal capacity before throwing in their lot as a literary "movement."

Published 13 years after the official "disbanding" of the group, The Violet Quill Reader contains work by all seven writers, including a formerly unpublished story by Cox, who produced little and died young (as did Grumley, Ferro and Whitmore), as well as letters and diary entries detailing the group's short-lived formal activities. By all accounts, the group shared a basic political outlook (gay liberation theology), but not an aesthetic one. Their work does not constitute a school of any sort, apart from that of being written by and for gays in what is now loosely called "the post-Stonewall era."

Bergman has carefully shaped the book to reveal the evolution of the writers before, during and after the group (only Holleran, whose famed Dancer From The Dance was among the first best-selling pieces of Gaylit, seems to have come to the group with his style fully-formed), as well as to frame their work in an historic context. It opens with White’s wonderful firsthand account of the Stonewall Riots, and some early letters of Holleran and Ferro not long after the two met at a Writers' Workshop in 1965. It ends with Holleran’s tribute to Ferro, following his death to aids in 1989.

While the work no longer seems revolutionary (Whitmore's The Confessions of Danny Slocum, for instance, reads like very slow literary foreplay, and White’s Nocturnes for the King of Naples is nothing more than self-indulgent "poetic" gobbledegook), in its day much of it was revelatory. Under the group's influence, individual members began producing far more notable work and were considered among the most successful gay authors of their generation. And while much of it covers familiar territory (coming out, facing discrimination, living with aids), a good deal of it remains powerful: the excerpt from Whitmore's Nebraska is gripping, as is the one from Ferro's last work, From Life Drawing. There are some memorable short pieces as well, like White’s intriguing An Oracle, and the droll Whitmore short story, Getting Rid of Robert, a "biographical" work that threatened to tear the VQ apart.

While the amount and the quality of work produced by individual members differs greatly, the group's collective influence on GayLit has been huge, and its value perhaps only now beginning to be recognized. The remaining members, White, Holleran and Picano, are to be honoured by the Lambda Literary Foundation with the 2009 Pioneer Award next month. And though with hindsight the VQ may seem to have been a movement whose time had come, we owe much to those who marched before it became entirely fashionable to do so.

April 17, 2009

And suddenly it's summer! Today it reached 21 degrees--nice T-shirt weather for most Canucks, though I won't shed my winter gear till it hits 23.

Two weeks ago I sat down to start work on the third draft of my non-gay, non-literary mystery, The Sulphur Springs Cure, written for, yes, money. (It's a Miss Marple-style cosy about an 82-year-old woman who returns to the scene of a childhood murder, and which I intend to publish under the name Isadora Funk.) I quickly ploughed through the first hundred pages. Since then, one thing after another has conspired to keep me from getting back to it, including the final proofs of Death In Key West, which is unofficially due out May 8. Every day it seems there's something new needing to be done.

Today I finally booked for the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans next month. As gay literary festivals go, it's one of the most enjoyable and rewarding around. I'm especially looking forward to seeing pals like Greg Herren and Paul Willis, as well as Lynn Krause (aka author Geneva St James…shhh!), Jeff Mann, Michael Thomas Ford, Aaron Hamburger, and a whole lot of others…not to mention the gumbo and the beignets!

April 5, 2009

Last night's Proust and Company saw one of the most rousing evenings we've had at the event so far, and this was as much due to our highly appreciative audience as to some terrific readers and performers. Singer/guitarist Ezequial Ledesma started us off with a superb set of classic Latin songs, featuring some evocative backup vocals by Geri Anecito and P-and-C perennial, Omel Masalunga. Then poet, biographer and theatre critic Keith Garebian read from his recent work, Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems, a haunting elegy to the late filmmaker whose life and work have inspired some of Keith's most passionate poetry. He was followed by Toronto favourite and new mom, Elizabeth Ruth, whose famous Clit Lit reading series ran for nearly five years and showcased more than 400 writers. Elizabeth read from Smoke, her highly acclaimed second novel about a Southern Ontario tobacco country boy with a facial disfigurement, selected as the 2007 One Book, One Community series. Finishing the evening with a bang, the only writer I know who achieves vertical lift-off the moment she starts to read, west coaster Karen X Tulchinsky put in a surprise appearance after a cancellation by RM Vaughan. Although Rich was missed, we were thrilled to have Karen step in to take his slot, reading from her first novel, Love Ruins Everything. Truly a grand evening, and thanks to everyone (John, Josh, Ryan...) involved.


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