February 22, 2016

Review Revue for Pride 2016: podcast and... poem!

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Following on our last post, where we enticed you with a transcript of one of the six reviews performed in our rainbow Review Revue, we can now offer you the podcast of the full line-up:

 Michael Giacon on Young Robert Duncan: portrait of the poet as homosexual in society by Ekbert Faas

 Jade du Preez on How to be both by Ali Smith

 Richard Galloway on Mary Renault, author of The Charioteer and many other works of LGBTQ fiction

 Morgan Borthwick on Cinnamon toast and the end of the world by Janet E. Cameron

 Christopher Dempsey on Hear us out: conversations with gay novelists by Richard Canning

 Carole Beu on Lucky us by Amy Bloom

I loved it when Michael launched the evening by confessing "I have had this book since 1989 and I have just started reading it".   I trust we all have our own versions of this confession.

What we probably all don't have is the experience of having read Robert Duncan's revolutionary love poem which Michael refers to, "The Torso". I hadn't, but I hunted it down, and now that I've read it and found it as amazing as Michael gave us to believe, I want to give you the chance. I am not sure what year it was written, but it was at least 50 years ago, and it would be daring stuff even now.

The lines Duncan put in italics are quotes from "Edward II", Christopher Marlowe's tragic drama about the king who "cares for poetry, philosophy, and the commoner Gaveston more than war, statecraft, and his politically advantageous wife" as one of the writers on the University of Illinois page about this poem puts it. Attention to the last line, though: Duncan has altered one word from Marlowe's text, and with that changed everything. "The King upon whose bosom let me die." wrote Marlowe. "The King upon whose bosom let me lie." wrote Duncan, throwing off the death sentence of the homosexual.

Most beautiful! The red-flowering eucalyptus
                    the madrone, the yew
                    Is he...

       So thou wouldst smile, and take me in thine arms
       the sight of London to my exiled eyes
       Is as Elysium to a new-come soul

              If he be Truth
              I would dwell in the illusion of him

  His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body

            such an idea in man's image

       rising tides that sweep me towards him

              . . .homosexual?

                 and at the treasure of his mouth

              pour forth my soul

                 his love   commingling

  I thought a Being more than vast, His body leading
            into Paradise,   his eyes
              quickening a fir in me,   a trembling

            hieroglyph:   At the root of the neck

       the clavicle, for the neck is the stem of the great artery
         upward into his head that is beautiful

                 At the rise of the pectoral muscles

       the nipples, for the breasts are like sleeping fountains
         of feeling in man, waiting above the heat of his heart,
         shielding the rise and fall of his breath, to be

                 At the axis of his mid riff

       the navel, for in the pit of his stomach the chord from
         which first he was fed has its temple

                 At the root of the groin

       the pubic hair, for the torso is the stem in which the man
         flowers forth and leads to the stamen of flesh in which
         his seed rises

  a wave of need and desire over   taking me

              cried out my name

       (This was long ago.   It was another life)

                        and said,

            What do you want of me?

  I do not know, I said.   I have fallen in love.   He
     has brought me into heights and depths my heart
             would fear   without him.   His look

       pierces my side . fire eyes .

     I have been waiting for you, he said:
                 I know what you desire

            you do not yet know   but through me .

     And I am with you everywhere.   In your falling

     I have fallen from a high place.   I have raised myself

            from darkness in your   rising

                      wherever you are

       my hand in your hand   seeking   the locks, the keys

     I am there.   Gathering me, you gather

            your Self .

       For my Other is not a woman but a man

       the King upon whose bosom let me lie.

--Robert Duncan, The Torso

You can listen to Review Revue via Soundcloud below or search for "Auckland Libraries" in iTunes or on your favourite podcast app to download the episode.

February 11, 2016

Celebrating Pride 2016 with a rainbow Review Revue

 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.

And for an idea of the content, well, you're in for a treat! One of last night's reviewers is a fellow librarian, so he also couldn't say no when I asked him to turn his notes into a post for Books in the City. Here he is and here you go!


Morgan Borthwick on Cinnamon toast and the end of the world

I have never been to a Review Revue before. When my colleagues discovered an ancient book review of mine and asked me to speak, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to sit here and listen to me waffle on about that book I read one summer that I sort of liked because it had a hot guy in it. But hey, I’m here and I’m queer and I’m here to talk to you about a book! 

I thought long and hard about a book to read, do I go the popular route and review a classic you’re probably pretending you’ve read? Do I choose a best seller like A little life (which by the way, is totally fantastic and everyone should read)? Do I spend all night extolling the virtues of Maggie Smith (hint, it’ll be longer than 7 minutes)? Do I get up on my soapbox about the gay erotica that the library stocks and why I find it hideous (the inability of so many writers to accurately write gay sex scenes)? Or do I find a hidden gem that many people wouldn’t have heard about and bang on about it for seven minutes until I’ve convinced you to read it?

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 clich├ęd 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.

Some were nauseatingly cutesy romantic (Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the Universe, Fan Art, Rainbow Boys, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens agenda) where funnily enough, the best friend is in love with them or SHOCK GASP the cute guy at the back of the bus is actually gay and has been stalking them too. This is heart-warming to read but it is simply not true. These books should come with a "Don’t try this at home" warning, as they’re setting poor questioning teenagers up for failure or worse.

One the other end of the spectrum there is a range of teen reads where life is shit, high school is shit and the focus is on themes of suicide, depression, prostitution and runaways (Money Boi, Bait, Suicide Notes). While again a very real thing in the world for many gay teenagers, it is not always like that, nor is it helpful for books to perpetuate stereotypes and offer ideas like the ones some of these do.

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.

(Podcast of the entire Revue coming soon!)

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