|Auckland Museum lights up for Pride 2016|
Yesterday evening at Central Library we celebrated Pride 2016 with our annual Review Revue, an evening of stand-up reviewing with a focus on the world of GLBTIQ literature. "You get up with a book and you have seven minutes to make it notorious" is how we describe it to people we invite to join our line-up of reviewers. And no one says no, which gives you an idea of the atmosphere.
Morgan Borthwick on Cinnamon toast and the end of the world
You guessed it. I’m going to speed review for you a hidden treasure of a book that I read in one night, with lots of tears and smiles, Cinnamon toast and the end of the world by Janet E. Cameron.
Picture yourself as a Russian-Ukrainian Jewish gay teenager in a dead-end small town in Nova Scotia 1987. Can’t do it? Well, meet Stephen Shulevitz, our hero. Three months before graduation he realises that he is in love with his best friend Mark. Mark is straight, dyslexic, from the wrong side of the tracks and doesn’t know what he’d do if he ever met a queer. ‘Probably kill them if they touched me’ is one of his many sweet lines in the book.
What follows from this realisation is Stephen’s coming of age, interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood, to his adolescence with an absent father, and to his ever changing relationship with his dreamy mother.
I don’t really want to tell you any more than that, because it is a fucking fantastic book that should be read by as many people as possible. At times hilarious, at others heartbreaking, it never fails to be unflinchingly honest. From Stephen’s experiences with sex to the horrors of -- and attitudes towards -- AIDS in 1987 to the clichéd but ever fascinating topic of gay men and their mothers, this book covers it all in vivid, graphic detail.
What I do want to focus on in this review is the truth behind this book. I have read many, many novels about gay teenagers discovering who they are, starting at around age 12 when I was first discovering who I was beyond the Saddle Club novels and Cleo magazines. They veered between two extremes.
Very few books find that rarely discussed but commonly experienced middle ground in exploring what being a gay teenager is like, and for me it's important to get up on my soapbox about one that does. I find it ironic that I had to go to a book set in 1987, in the middle of the AIDS crisis to do so, but there you go. Without spoiling it for you, it is an open ending, it has a bittersweet tone and it showcases that life for gay teenagers isn’t always about extremes. Often, writers forget that with gay teenagers, and trying to describe their life experiences, the drama is already there, honey. You don’t need to add to it, we’ll do that for you. I love books that focus on the character, rather than the circumstances surrounding them and this book nailed that.
For me, that was my life. As a gay teenager, I didn’t struggle, there were problems, bullies, unrequited crushes and awful experiences with girls -- I won’t lie. But there was no happily ever after as a 15 year old with that cute guy at the back of the bus; there were also no suicide attempts or drug overdose and years in rehab. That’s not to say those things don’t happen or take away from the struggles that people have, but for me, there was none of that.
There was just me, an ordinary gay teenager, trying to find his way in the world with not a lot of advice, a lot of alcohol and plenty of hormones. That’s what this book is about. Simple, plain honest life regardless of sexuality, written in the most beautiful of ways that understands sometimes life is messy, definitely not straight, but with a bit of grit and the odd tear, you’ll get there. I recommend you all read this book, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll all wish you knew a small town gay Ukrainian-Russian Jewish teenager like Stephen Shulevitz.