Finally Out by Dr. Loren A. Olson

October 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm (ARC, book review, books, memoir, nonfiction, psychology, queer interest, queer studies, reading)

With Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, Dr. Loren Olson delivers an all-in-one memoir, psychology, and self-help text about coming out of the closet in later life. Through discussion of key psychological concepts and personal stories Olson, who came out at forty, explains why the coming out process can be delayed for some men, and in doing so attempts to submarine the misconception that gay men who marry women and raise families are only using their wives and children to hide their sexuality. From deeply held religious beliefs and traditional gender norms to social expectations and fear of rejection Olson examines the numerous factors that contribute to the denial and repression of sexual identity. He also discusses the challenges unique to this particular demographic such as helping children understand and cope with their father’s sexuality, and reconciling the desire for a traditional family dynamic in a country that, by and large, does not allow gay couples the benefits of marriage.

Though it is good to see this largely ignored aspect of the gay experience given a thorough examination, Finally Out tries to be so many things at once that the text never really coalesces into cohesive narrative. The history lessons, psychological concepts, personal stories and advice contained in each chapter do not feel like parts of a larger whole, but a jumble of ideas thrown together at random. Transitions from one paragraph to the next are abrupt. When using personal stories to illustrate psychological concepts Olson often fails to explain exactly how the story relates to the concept or the overarching theme of the chapter. For example, in chapter four which focuses largely on the coming out process, Olson writes about the dissolution of his marriage. Though, yes, the break-up of Olson’s marriage certainly played a key role in his coming out process he does not actually write about how it did. He goes into detail about how and when everything went sour, and theorizes about how his wife and children felt during the divorce, but he does not frame the story within a context of coming out and that left me wondering why he chose to include this story in this particular chapter. This disconnect occurs throughout the book whenever Olson introduces a personal anecdote, and it made me feel like I was reading two separate and distinct books, not a unified text.

Finally Out contains a lot of useful information, but it is trying to do too much. Olson should have written a psychology book or a memoir, not both at the same time.

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Landing by Emma Donoghue

December 31, 2008 at 3:55 am (fiction, literature, novels, queer interest)

In Emma Donoghue’s fifth novel, Landing, “Love isn’t a problem, geography is.” So says Jude Turner, a twenty-five year old museum curator who has spent her entire life in the small town of Ireland, Ontario, population six hundred. The love she’s referring to is Sile O’Shuanessey, a thirty-nine year old flight attendant whose roots are in Dublin, Ireland. After meeting on a trans-Atlantic flight neither woman can get the other out of her head, and they start up a flirty correspondence that slowly blooms into full blown love.

Jude and Sile appear to be total opposites. Jude is young, androgynous, loathes technology, adores small town life, and has a great respect for history. Sile is older, feminine, tech-savvy, well traveled, and loves urban living. But scratch the surface and you find both women are stuck in ruts dug by the repetitious natures of their respective lifestyles. Jude finds herself hanging around with the same people she did in high school, engaging in the same activities day in and day out, while Sile spends her days stuck in an airplane dealing with the same moody passengers flight after flight. It’s the stone of their long-distance relationship that disrupts their routines, sending ripples through every aspect of their lives.

The long distance relationship itself isn’t just the cause of each woman’s internal struggle, but an external depiction of it. It allows both women the emotional benefits of commitment without any of the inconveniences. There’s no fighting over where to eat dinner Friday night; no having to play referee to the lover and best friend who can’t stand each other. Both Jude and Sile are able to continue living their lives without significant interruption. But as their relationship turns serious, Jude and Sile begin to view the arrangement in a negative light. When the two meet up in New York for a weekend together, rather than look forward to the three days they have with Landingeach other, each sunrise and sunset only reminds them that they will have to part again. On page 196 Sile’s best friend Jael observes that the long distance relationship “Sounds like all the hassle of being in a couple, and none of the pleasure.” Still stubbornly attached to their home towns, however, neither Sile nor Jude is willing to make any compromise that will require major change in their lives. When the strain of maintaining separate lives becomes to much for the relationship to bear Jude and Sile must decide whether to remain chained to the past and rooted in routine, or to risk taking flight and seeing where their relationship lands.

I am a big fan of Emma Donoghue, and as with all of my favorite authors, she consistently produces work that is rich in themes worthy of examination. One could write a critical essay on the how the arbitrary constructs  of “time” and “place” work in the novel. Or ask what is it that physically and emotionally anchors us to specific locations? Donoghue returns to the  idea of taking flight and eventually landing throughout the novel, and how the two seemingly opposing actions often overlap and mimic each other.

While it would have been easy for Sile and Jude to come across as cliches, the consummate city mouse and country mouse, Donoghue gives them depth and individuality. Jude has a strong sense of self that allows her to be open about her fluid sexuality even in  a town where everyone knows everyone elses business, and Sile is incredibly kind and nurturing despite a fast paced jet-setter lifestyle that often forces her to deal with highly demanding individuals. The women have enough in common that  it’s easy to understand why they like each other, and are in just enough disagreement for the reader to understand what is keeping them apart.

Falling in love is like taking to the air. There’s the soaring, butterflies in the stomach feel of the honeymoon period that must eventually give way to the apprehensive, stomach-in-your-throat feeling brought on by the realization that what goes up must come down. With her trademark compassion and sensitivity, Donoghue has crafted a satisfying read about the risks of falling and the rewards of landing.

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The Weekend by Peter Cameron

September 3, 2007 at 2:56 pm (fiction, literature, novels, queer interest)

The Weekend is a relatively simple story full of complicated relationships. Lyle, a controversial art critic, receives an invitation to spend the weekend in upstate New York with his old friends John and Marian Kerr on the one year anniversary of his lover Tony’s death. The Kerrs’ have invited a rich intellectual named Laura for dinner one evening, hoping her love and knowledge of art will pique Lyle’s interest and keep him from dwelling on the sadness of the occasion. But everyone is surprised when Lyle shows up with his new and significantly younger lover, Robert. Thus begins a tense outing and a story that never quite reaches its potential.

Though my problems with the book are few they were large enough to prevent me from truly losing myself in this novel. My biggest qualm is with the characters themselves, all of whom are cold, elitist, defensive, and withholding. Since they all possess the same character flaws not a single one of them stands out. Rather, they all meld into one another, each losing whatever distinguishing characteristics they might have. It’s not exciting to read a novel in which five of the primary characters all deal with the same problems in the same ways. By doing this Cameron has missed a great opportunity to examine the grieving process from numerous perspectives.

Most of the back story revolving around Lyle and Tony is related through dialogue. This choice poses problems for two reasons: 1) it makes all of the characters, even those who The Weekend by Peter Cameronhave known one another for years, sound so uninformed they border on naive. For instance, John and Marian often ask Lyle questions that they as his lifelong friends should already know the answers to. And 2) it makes the dialogue predictable. Almost all the dialogue follows the same Q & A format with one person doing all the talking and the other doing all the asking.  Not only does this rob characters of their individual voices, but it makes conversation uniform. In this case the writing axiom “show, don’t tell” should have been more closely heeded.

However, Cameron is a good writer. His prose are clear, quick, and concise and at no point did I want to put the book down. He does a fabulous job of building tension. Though the characters all deal with the same internal conflicts, their decision to keep those conflicts bottled up throughout the story allows the reader to live in anticipation of the scene where they are all revealed. By keeping the protagonists just a degree or two below boiling Peterson lures the reader through page after page with great speed.

Unfortunately, the final pages are a disappointment. Cameron doesn’t bother to tie up any of the loose ends created by the climax which leaves the reader feeling deflated. While not without charm, the negative aspects of The Weekend outweigh the positives. Pass on this one.

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Brendan Wolf by Brian Malloy

August 14, 2007 at 6:44 pm (fiction, novels, queer interest)

The fact that I finished reading Brendan Wolf two months ago and haven’t written a review until now should be taken as a compliment to the author. Brian Malloy has created such a thematically rich and engaging story that I’ve had a hard time organizing my thoughts on it. I can’t zero in on a single motif I’d like to examine because there are just so many. At this point I am desperate and as we all know, desperate times call for desperate measures. I loved this book and want to give it a glowing review. But since my typical review format seems to be failing me in this case, it’s time to say the hell with smooth, logical transitions, and try something a little different.

I Liked Brendan Wolf Because…Brendan Wolf by Brian Malloy

1) Of Brian Malloy’s fantastic use of language. He has a gift for describing everyday items and occurrences in new and unusual ways. For instance, on page 21 he describes one character as having “a voice like a broken nose.” On page 105 he likens a conversation to cooking as the characters go about “carefully measuring words like the ingredients of a recipe that’s far too ambitious for their marginal skills.” The story is filled with these wonderful and remarkably precise descriptions.

2) It wasn’t rushed. Brendan Wolf is a slow-paced, character driven novel and I was glad to see Malloy allow the story to unfold in its own time. So many contemporary novelists rush their final chapters. If you have read anything written over the last thirty years you have probably winced your way through more than one painfully forced ending. Brendan Wolf possesses no such urgency. The final pages move at the same pace as the rest of the novel; the climax builds, peaks, and resolves itself at its own pace and all the loose ends tie themselves up in a completely believable fashion.

3) The title character is multi-dimensional. When writing gay characters it is so easy to make their sexuality their only defining characteristic and wind up with a flat character as a result. Malloy has created a protagonist of great depth, one with a fertile interior life. The fact that he is gay, while important, does not overwhelm Brendan’s character.

Brendan is 35. He can’t hold down a job. He is an orphan. He is a compulsive liar. He can’t take responsibility for his own actions. He lives on dreams. He has an ex-con brother who talks him into participating in a grand heist he has been planning. Despite, and in many cases, because of this, Brendan is an incredibly sympathetic and absorbing individual. While I was reading Brendan Wolf I kept thinking back to Flight, and decided that Malloy’s ability to flesh out a character was easily on par with that of Sherman Alexie.

4) It was rich in themes. Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows that I love stories abundant in themes. I know I’m reading a good book when I start thinking of topics for papers I could have written if I’d read the book in college. Here are a few of the paper topics I came up with while reading Brendan Wolf:

An examination of the hypocrisy minor characters express regarding homosexuality.

A look at the many ways Brendan tries to avoid personal responsibility and the lengths he goes to accept it.

The power of naming in the novel.

Explanation and analysis of the many ways Brendan and Marv mirror one another.

The pros and cons of living “in the moment.”

See? This is why this review was so long in the making, Malloy gave me way too things to write about!

5) It held me completely in thrall. As I’ve mentioned before, I do the bulk of my recreational reading on the subway going to and from work. Once I get to where I’m going the book usually gets stuffed in my bag, not to emerge until I get back on the train. I was so involved in this book that I had to pull it right back out the second I walked into my apartment. I never wanted to put it down. I had to find out if Brendan would actually go through with the robbery, if all the people he was scamming would find out who he really was, or if he’d get away with it and go on to build a new and happier life for himself.

Brendan Wolf is a thoroughly satisfying read, skillfully penned by a talented author. It captures the complexities and ambiguities of friendship, kinship, and personal responsibility with a clarity found only in the work of the most accomplished writers.

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Transparent by Cris Beam

April 4, 2007 at 8:23 pm (cultural studies, education, memoir, nonfiction, parenting, queer interest, queer studies, sociology)

Though we often think of sexual orientation as being all about the type of people we are attracted to, who we are in relation to the people we are attracted to is just as important. Not everyone who is attracted to women is a Lesbian, only women who are attracted to other women exclusively. In order to define our sexuality in a socially understood way first we must possess a stable gender identity.

The process of identity building that takes place during the teenage years is hard for everyone and twice as difficult for individuals coming into a socially unacceptable sexual identity. But the struggle to build identity is harder still when a teen figures out he or she is actually a different gender than the one they were brought up as.

In Transparent, journalist Cris Beam tells the stories of Transparent by Cris Beamseveral male to female transgendered and transsexual teens living on the streets of Los Angeles. The book is divided into two parts, each written in a slightly different tone. The first part is pure social science. Beam explains how she came up with the idea of writing the book while teaching at Eagles, a high school for gay and trans kids. She follows the lives of some of her favorite students, each chapter focusing on a particular aspect of their lives: school, family, body image, and love. Part two turns into a memoir when Beam and her girlfriend agree to become the legal guardians of one of her former students from Eagles. She explores the many unique challenges presented to parents of trans teenagers.

This was another one of those awesome books that made me feel as though my brain were physically expanding as I read. One aspect of trans life that Beam highlights throughout the book is the astounding amount of sexism and trans-phobia her subjects deal with not just from friends and strangers, but from public institutions like schools, hospitals, and courts. She notes there are currently no laws protecting trans workers leaving them vulnerable to discriminatory hiring and firing practices, not to mention on the job harassment, sexual and otherwise. One woman tells of being forced to use the bathroom on a floor of her office building that was being remodelled when the men and women she worked with told management they were uncomfortable with a trans woman using either the men’s or women’s bathrooms on the populated floors.

When one of Beam’s former students, Domenique, is incarcerated she looks at the many ways the penal system short changes trans folk. Transgendered individuals are housed according to genitalia and male to female transsexuals placed in all male wards are often harassed and assaulted.  Domenique is housed in the Sensitive Needs Yard, a unit for inmates who require special protection. But even there she isn’t safe, reporting instances of harassment by other inmates as well as guards. She fears for her safety so much that she avoids socializing or engaging in any recreational activities. The only way to protect herself is to stay isolated. Domenique’s story depicts a truth that Beam highlights early on, that the system simply hasn’t been set up to deal with people whose gender identity falls outside the binary.

Beam is a deft storyteller who effortlessly weaves queer and gender theory, history, and sociology into her personal recollections. The memoir aspect is what gives the narrative real bite. Without it the book would be purely informative, providing statistics and ruminations on people and situations far removed from the reader’s safety zone. But by including her own trials and tribulations as the parent of a transgendered teenager she engages the reader through the ever relatable experience of motherhood. Beam’s daughter is a typical teenager in so many ways,  from her stubborness to her rebellious streak. But the normal butting of heads that occurs during those years is magnified by the unique challenges of trying to raise a healthy and happy trans child.

Transparent is a beautifully constructed introduction to the social and emotional hurdles of growing up trans in America. By exploring the world of ambiguities that exist between male and female, Beam highlights the one thing we all know but are often unable to accept, that we’re all human.

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Take This Bread by Sara Miles

February 28, 2007 at 7:34 pm (activism, memoir, nonfiction, queer interest, queer studies, religion/spirituality)

One Sunday, out lesbian, social activist, and life long atheist Sara Miles went for a walk in her neighborhood and ended up in a nearby Episcopal church taking communion for the first time in her life. Take This Bread is the story of Sara’s conversion to Christianity and how her faith inspired her to open several food pantries for the hungry in the San Francisco area.

Food and community are the two central themes Miles uses to frame the narrative. She Take This Bread by Sara Milesbegins by writing about her experience as a cook in the early eighties, and how the act of serving meals to others is so intimate; one that connects the chef to the customer by way of a shared reverence for the meal. She goes on to describe her years as a journalist in war ridden Central America, constantly hiding from vigilantes and running from gun fire. She recalls the strangers who housed and fed her all through those years, people whose generosity in the face of danger taught Sara about the power of community. When Sara finds herself taking communion she sees how food and community often intersect through the common denominator of hunger. Miles manages to sustain this frame throughout the book, marking each step of her journey to faith with incidents involving food and community. This is no small task. Not every author is capable of setting a frame and keeping it up throughout the story. Miles’ clarity of intention keeps the entire story firmly rooted.

Even though the book does not explicitly explore what it means to be both Christian and gay (for the most part Miles only mentions her sexuality in passing,) it is an underlying thread that runs through the narrative. Having come out early on in the story, the reader is very conscious of Miles’ sexuality as she becomes more involved in church activities. But the congregation and pantry volunteers often prove to be the very embodiment of Christian love and acceptance. When, persuaded by her teenage daughter, Miles and her long time partner decide to go to the court house and get married shortly after San Francisco starts offering civil marriages to gay couples, the following Sunday at church the entire congregation gathers to bless and affirm their partnership. Even after all the gay marriages performed in California are annuled a month later, thanks to the support of her church Miles knows that her union, regardless of legality, is blessed by God.

Though there were a couple things that bothered me about this book (Miles’ obsessive and often distacting overuse of colons and semicolons for one,) overall I found Take This Bread a highly satisfying read. It’s message of unity, compassion, and love is one all of us could benefit from absorbing.

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