Friday, March 27, 2015

Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life, 1918-1945



Ina Russell, Editor
Faber & Faber
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars




Overview




It occurred to me today with something of a shock how horrible it would be for this diary of mine to be pawed over and read unsympathetically after I am dead, by those incapable of understanding... And then the thought of the one thing even more dreadful and terrible than that - for my diary never to be read by the one person who would or could understand. For I do want it to be read - there is no use concealing the fact - by somebody who is like me, who would understand. Jeb Alexander was a gay man who lived in Washington, D.C., during the first half of the twentieth century. From 1918, when he was nineteen years old, until the late 1950s, he chronicled his daily life engagingly and unsparingly, leaving behind a unique record of ordinary gay life before Stonewall, a history that has remained largely hidden until now. Jeb came of age as the century did, witnessing and recording political and social change from the position of insider as an editor for the U.S. Government and outsider as a gay man. Painfully shy, and frustrated in his ambition to be a novelist by writer's block, Jeb turned to his diary as a way of expressing himself as well as recording events, creating a full emotional self-portrait and unforgettable sketches of the men who made up his lively circle of friends. Jeb and Dash also details the joy and anguish of an extraordinary on-and-off love affair between Jeb and C. C. Dasham (Dash), whom he met in college and with whom he remained friends throughout his life. A rare and important historical document, a beautifully written memoir, a love story, an ode to old Washington, D.C., Jeb and Dash is a remarkable find and an enduring literary achievement.



My Review




Finally finished!

This book took me months to read and even though I was tempted to set it aside more than once, I’m glad I was patient enough to see it through to the end.

This is a condensed version of Jeb’s diary edited by his niece, Ina Russell, starting from when Jeb was 12 years old and ending a year before his death in 1965. This diary covers the years between 1918 and 1959. I loved the glimpse of history between two world wars, politics, famous personalities, plays, literature, music, observations on life and the world, and the details about gay life in a time when the word “gay” had a different meaning and homosexuality was a crime. I presume Ina Russell left out many details of Jeb’s cruising in Lafayette Square to spare the sensibilities of mainstream readers, but I think these details would have added some spice and richness and shown how dangerous and difficult gay life was for many people.

Jeb meets Dash while in college and throughout his story relays his deep affection for him. Even though his feelings are not returned, the two men remain friends for many years.

August 25, 1920
“I have at last found a friend, a lovable, handsome fellow, a realization of the friend I have dreamed of during all those lonely nights while I walked alone through the streets.”

February 11, 1921
“I want love and affection. Damn it! All that Stevenson said about journals is true. This diary of mine is a tissue of posturing. My real thoughts on such matters as sex are not admitted even to myself. I will be frank. I am madly in love with C. C. Dasham.”

July 16, 1927
“Returned home tired and nervous. Dinner with Dash. His entrancing personality so enthralls me! So beautiful, so beautiful. I would do anything for him.”

August 1, 1936
“Dash got his ticket, checked his bag, and gave me a strong handclasp. The goodness, sweetness, and steadfastness of his loyal, generous nature shone from his wide, serious, green eyes. That may sound like a rhapsody, but it’s God’s truth.”

The love pouring from Jeb’s words made me sad, knowing that he and Dash were not meant to be. I wish Jeb had moved on and found someone else to love. I also wish he would have fulfilled his aspirations of becoming a writer instead of spending many lonely nights drinking and journaling about his sad life.

The center of the book contains photos of Jeb, Jeb and Dash, Jeb’s family, a copy of a handwritten page in his diary, and places he’s lived in and visited. I would have liked to see some photos of the friends who meant so much to him.

There was some lovely, evocative writing here and a sense of immediacy, particularly in the last section during the World War Two years. There were also a lot of mundane details and too much repetition, some of which became tedious to read.

I would recommend this to those interested in gay history, the history of Washington, D.C., and the impact significant historical events have on individual lives.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Double IndemnityDouble Indemnity by James M. Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn't have the money and I didn't have the woman.”

One of the great Noir lines of all time. Cain wrote it. Raymond Chandler used it in the movie. I could stop my review right here because that line sums up the movie perfectly.

But I can't. I love writing about books.

Walter Huff met a woman. A married woman, a woman Huff would be willing to turn himself inside out if that would insure her love. Her name is Phyllis and she has a thought, not even a plan, just a thought of what she would like to do about her husband.

DoubleIndemnity
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck

Much has been made of Phyllis being a femme fatale, maybe even one of the most viperous examples in history. It has been a while since I've seen the movie and maybe Stanwyck does portray Phyllis much more deviously manipulative than what I found the book Phyllis to be. Now I'm not saying she is an angel I'm just saying she ran into a guy that even surprised himself with what he was willing to do with the hope of getting the girl.

Huff has made a career out of reading people and when he meets Phyllis she asks him a handful of suggestive questions and the guy is already formulating a full blown plan for insurance fraud. He has been in the insurance game for a long time and he knows about every angle ever thought up by anyone to try and pull one over on an insurance company. He is uniquely qualified to formulate the perfect scam.

I don't like insurance. Life insurance they are betting I live. I'm betting I die. It is kind of crazy if you give it much thought. Car insurance they are betting I don't get in an accident. I'm betting that I do. The industry has convinced us to bet against ourselves and pay for the privilege. And yet, even though I'm aware of the situation, I pay thousands of dollars of insurance premiums every year to insure one disaster doesn't sink the ship. Walter Huff would love stopping by to see me.

Huff is so intent on the details of this insurance rip-off that he never learns much about Phyllis. He doesn't even really seem to care about why she would be interested in killing her husband. She is the bunny and he is the greyhound running around the track. There is no hesitation about Huff. He leaps at the chance to help Phyllis get the insurance money. I'm not sure what was more important to him pulling off the perfect swindle (my vote)or winning the girl.

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James M. Cain

Crisp, wonderful writing with pitch perfect dialogue. My recommendation is read the book and then watch the movie, a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. At least 18 films have been made from James M. Cain novels and stories. Besides this novel he wrote two other novels that are not only considered noir fiction classics, but also translated well to film, The Postman Always Rings Twiceand Mildred Pierce. In college I took a film and novel class and Mildred Pierce was one of the books/movies on the syllabus. One of the most enjoyable classes I ever took. I love the combination of two different art forms. I generally like the book better because there is usually more depth to the characters and more subplots can be incorporated into the flow of the novel. Film is restricted by length, but when they get it right they really get it right. I try, as best I can, to judge books and movies from books on separate scales. Even a movie that butchers the original source material can be a great movie. In the case of James M. Cain because he wrote such great dialogue Hollywood did not have to deviate far from his original intentions. Highly recommended!

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Magician

The MagicianThe Magician by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Arthur Burdon is due to marry his fiance, Margaret Dauncey. The pair have the misfortune of meeting Oliver Haddo, a self-styled magician and pompous ass. When Arthur assaults Haddo, the Magician hatches a plan to ruin Arthur's life in the most insidious of ways...

The Magician is a tale of revenge, seduction, and things of that nature, written by Maugham after he met Aleister Crowley. It's pretty much a horror novel, honestly.

Oliver Haddo is a revolting character that made my skin crawl and his seduction of Margaret was a little hard to read about. Arthur, Susie, and Margaret were also well drawn, flawed characters.

For a novel written in 1908, The Magician was surprisingly readable compared to many books of that era. The writing was lush and descriptive without being overly flowery and still felt pretty accessible. Haddon's occult knowledge and abilities were also very well done, not terribly flashy and somewhat believable. I have to think the way magic was depicted influence Susan Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

The only strike against the book that I can readily come up with against this book is the ending. I felt it was a little on the anti-climatic side and kind of a downer.

The Magician is a surprisingly effective horror novel for being over one hundred years old. I may have to give old Maugham another shot some day soon. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

What the Bell Boy Saw





















Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Dusty Rhodes is one seriously screwed-up dude. Of course when this book was first published in 1954, no one would have thought to call him a "dude," but no one would have disputed the fact that he was a young man with some pretty nasty problems--in other words, just the sort of protagonist that you'd expect to find in a novel by Jim Thompson.

Dusty has a little bit of college behind him--how much is not exactly clear--and he had once hoped to go to medical school. But he had to drop out of school after his mother died and his father lost his job at the local high school. This is back in the days of the Red Scare, and the local crusaders have accused the elder Mr. Rhodes of signing a petition upholding the right of free speech in America. And back in that day and age, such an accusation was more than enough to get one fired from a position of such responsibility, at least in a small conservative town in Texas where the story is apparently set.

Dusty thus takes a job as the night bell boy at the Manton Hotel. He could have chosen another job at the hotel, but figuring the tips involved, this is the one that pays the most money and Dusty needs all he can get now that he's the sole support of both himself and his father who, in addition to being unemployed, is also in failing health.

Dusty is a very attractive young man, but he's only ever loved one woman and that relationship turned out very badly. He's convinced that there will never be another woman in his life but then, early one morning, Marcia Hillis checks into the hotel. She's the most beautiful woman Dusty has ever seen and he concludes fairly quickly that she is now the only woman in whom he will ever be interested again.

The Manton is a high class hotel, and they have very strict rules about bell boys fraternizing with the female guests. Up to this point, Dusty has never been tempted to chance breaking the rule, but he might make an exception in this case, especially after the delectable Ms. Hillis indicates an interest in him.

Also residing in the hotel is a small-time gangster named Tug Trowbridge. Trowbridge befriends Dusty and tips him handsomely, and any well-seasoned crime fiction reader understands that the combination of the arrival of Marcia Hillis along with the friendship of Tug Trowbridge is bound to mean trouble for poor Dusty. Dusty ultimately realizes it too, but not before he takes that fatal first step down the wrong path that always spells doom for the poor mope who finds himself the main character in a noir novel.

This book is not the equal of some of Thompson's better-known work like Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, but it's a lot of fun nonetheless. Watching poor Dusty unravel is as gripping as watching the evil schemes that some of the characters have plotted unfold, and to no one's great surprise, before long Dusty Rhodes may well rue the day he ever encountered a swell-looking babe like Marcia Hillis.

Found Is A Funny Find (sorry)

FOUND Magazine #1FOUND Magazine #1 by Davy Rothbart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

FOUND is a collection of funny and occasionally hilarious stuff (pictures, letters, "lost pet" posters, etc) found by the editor or contributors and compiled in one place for your maximum enjoyment.

Zinester Davy Rothbart took some of the better bits from his hit zine of the '90s and quickly came out with a more professional looking magazine/book type of thing. It really just speaks for itself, so...

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I found FOUND to be better ingested in smaller bites than this. Too much random shit in one sitting doesn't set well. The bit-sized zine was more to my liking, but probably you're not going to be able to find it anymore, so I suggest grabbing a copy of the book and reading only a couple pages at a time.

There is no theme, no message or moral. This is just stuff. Some of it is thought-provoking. Some of it is sad. Some of it is just plain odd, because it's taken out of context. Some of it isn't so funny no matter which way you look at it. But hey, that's reality. If there is any point to all this, it's that a mishmash of street detritus can be taken as a reflection of the hopes and dreams that constantly fill and empty our lives from cradle to grave.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Midnight Riot


Ben Aaronovitch
Random House Ballantine
Reviewed by Nancy
3 out of 5 stars



Summary



Probationary Constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London's Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he'll face is a paper cut. But Peter's prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter's ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.



My Review



I’m a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, even though I got tired and stopped reading after #9. After a while the stories became too repetitive and I didn’t see any significant growth in Harry’s character. His smart-ass comments that were amusing in the earlier books started getting annoying towards the end.

In the hopes I would find a fun read similar to the Dresden books, I picked up Midnight Riot. It wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t a great one either. Peter Grant was an interesting character. He is a constable in London’s Metropolitan Police who wants to be a detective, but his superior thinks he is better suited for pushing paper. Finding a headless corpse in The Actors’ Church in Covent Garden and talking with a ghost who witnessed the crime draws him to Thomas Nightingale, the force’s investigator of supernatural crimes. Under Nightingale’s patient tutelage, Peter learns how magic works and how to hone his investigative skills. He is kept very busy as the body count increases and his negotiation skills are called upon to help resolve the differences between the magical rulers of the Thames River. This is when the story seemed to lose focus for me. There were two stories in one, and neither was compelling enough to keep my interest. I found my attention wandering numerous times and took breaks to read other stories.

I loved that Peter is mixed race, his father a failed jazz musician and his mother a cleaning woman from Sierra Leone. While I enjoyed how the ethnic and racial diversity of London was portrayed, I couldn’t really get a feel for the city. I need more than street names, mention of famous landmarks, and references to TV shows or movies I haven’t seen or heard of. Too many acronyms became confusing and I found myself going back in the story to find out what they stand for.

Overall, the story was fast-paced, but not especially gripping. I liked Peter’s voice, his witty sense of humor and his scientific approach to magic. But like Harry Dresden, his sexual maturity never exceeds the level of a teenage boy, even though he is attracted to his colleague, Leslie, and Beverly Brook, daughter of Mother Thames. I’m not sure if I’ll continue with the series.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

ROADSIDE PICNIC BY ARKADY & BORIS STRUGATSKY

Roadside PicnicRoadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Intelligence is the attribute of man that separates his activity from that of the animals. It’s a kind of attempt to distinguish the master from the dog, who seems to understand everything but can’t speak. However, this trivial definition does lead to wittier ones. They are based on depressing observations of the aforementioned human activity. For example: intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural act.”

“Yes, that’s us!”


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There is a 1979 film by Andrei Tarkovsky loosely based on The Roadside Picnic. The screenplay is by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I’m, of course, going to have to watch it.

Redrick “Red” Schuhart is a stalker. He is one of the few people crazy enough to go into “The Zone”. Thirty years ago Aliens visited the Earth. They landed at six different locations. Hung out for a while and took off.

They ignored us.

What The Frill?

Here we are the most intelligent species to ever evolve on this planet (debatable) and the big moment occurs when another, obviously intelligent species comes to visit, and they act like the snooty prom queen and king at the big dance.

You’d think we were mere bugs. Not even worthy of a good probing or dissection.

In these zones they left behind trash, as if, as one scientist put it, they had just stopped off for a roadside picnic. They also left behind traps. Things unexplainable. Things that science even has trouble labeling. One example is what Red calls a bug trap, but the “eggheads” call it something else.

”His face has become completely calm, you can see he’s figured everything out. They are all like that, the eggheads. The most important thing for them is to come up with a name. Until he comes up with one, you feel really sorry for him, he looks so lost. But when he find a label like ‘graviconcentrate,’ he thinks he’s figured it all out and perks right up.”

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Stalkers are people who go into The Zone and retrieve objects. They then sell them on the black market for cash. They need a big payoff because every time they go into The Zone they are risking life or limb (there is this slime that melts the bones and eventually turns everything it touches into more slime). Most of the original stalkers are dead. Their corpses litter the landscape of The Zone providing guideposts for…don’t go there.

The Zone does something to them. Their kids are mutants. Red’s child becomes less and less human as she grows and becomes something unknown, unknowable. People from this area can’t emigrate because odd disasters start happening in the places they move to. The Zone owns them. Still, Red should just settle down and get a real job, a safe job.

”But how do I stop being a stalker when I have a family to feed? Get a job? And I don’t want to work for you, your work makes me want to puke, you understand? If a man has a job, then he’s always working for someone else, he’s a slave, nothing more--and I’ve always wanted to be my own boss, my own man, so that I don’t have to give a damn about anyone else, about their gloom and their boredom…”

Besides being dangerous, working as a stalker is also illegal. He soon finds himself on one last mission for a golden sphere that he has to find before The State robots get there first. It is about more than just the money. It is about outwitting everyone maybe even himself.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were Russian science-fiction writers who managed to publish most of what they wrote even under the heavy censoring hand of the Soviet Union. Ursula K. Le Guin in the forward explains it well. ”What they did, which I found most admirable then and still do now, was to write as if they were indifferent to ideology--something many of us writers in the Western democracies had a hard time doing. There wrote as free men write.” They did struggle to get Roadside Picnic published.

In the afterword Arkady has a list of all the letters and petitions that were exchanged between various Russian committees trying to get approval. ”Eight years. Fourteen letters to the ‘big’ and ‘little’ Central Committees. Two hundred degrading corrections of the text. An incalculable amount of nervous energy wasted on trivialities...Yes, the authors prevailed; there’s no arguing with that.

But it was a Pyrrhic Victory.”


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Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The book was published in Russian in 1972 and translated into English in 1977. This edition, that I read, is a new translation with all the original text, as the authors intended, reinstated. There is a 1979 movie as I mentioned above. The book also inspired a video game called. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

I absolutely love this concept. Hollywood has spent so much time making us worry about Aliens coming to Earth to enslave us, to steal our natural resources, to take over the planet, to use us as incubators for their spawn etc. We are completely unprepared to be ignored. We really don’t like being ignored.

The book can be read on many levels. It is an enjoyable fast paced read on the most basic level. For those that like to apply philosophy, politics, and psychology to their reading there is plenty of hooks to keep you pondering the true meaning of different situations. It is a book, that without a doubt, will give the reader more with each new read. This is one of those terrific finds that I may have never read without the guidance of friends on GR. Our compiled knowledge is oh so much greater than when we read alone.


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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Annihilation

Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four women, the twelfth such expedition, enter the mysterious Area X to observe and collect samples. Will the calamities that have befallen previous expeditions befall them as well?

I'd read four Jeff VanderMeer books prior to this one and they were all unsettling in one way or another. This one was par from the course.

Annihilation is a horror tale about secrecy, the unknown, and insanity. The biologist is the narrator and an unreliable one at that. The other characters are known only by their job function as well, giving the book a depersonalized feel. The story is more about mood and the character of the biologist than it is about exploration.

This is one of those books that I have a hard time quantifying my feelings about. It was really strange and I was captivated by it but I'm not precisely sure I'd say I liked it. There were more than enough unanswered questions to make me want to read the next book in the series, however.

With Annihilation, VanderMeer has crafted a creepy ass tale that would make H.P. Lovecraft shiver. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Lucas Davenport Goes to the Republican National Convention






















Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

It's the summer of 2008, and the Republicans have selected Minneapolis as the host city of the convention where they will nominate John McCain for the presidency. Inevitably, the convention will bring to the Twin Cities, in addition to all the politicians, a gaggle of protestors, potential assassins and terrorists, street people, con artists, grifters and other assorted crooks. The cops will have their hands full, as will Lucas Davenport's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Slipping into town amidst the lesser criminal talents is a high-powered gang of robbers headed by Rosie Cruz and Brutus Cohn. They have several targets mapped out, including a number of political operatives who will be sitting in their luxury hotel rooms with suitcases full of cash--in each case, over a million bucks. This is dirty money that will be passed out in blocks of untraceable cash to be used for paying street expenses during the campaign. The men with the money are sitting ducks and the best part is that, once the crew has ripped them off, they can't even report the crime because what they're doing is illegal.

Davenport, though, is alerted to the presence of the crew in town and begins the process of trying to track them down. But it won't be easy, especially in the general chaos that surrounds the convention, and when bodies start falling unexpectedly, the task becomes all that more urgent.

And, as if Davenport weren't busy enough, an old nemesis and Davenport's young ward, Letty, combine to cause even more trouble. Some years earlier, a small-time pimp named Randy Whitcomb, disfigured one of Davenport's snitches, who was a hooker in Whitcomb's stable. In retaliation, Davenport beat Whitcomb within an inch of his life and for that Davenport was forced to leave the Minneapolis PD, at least temporarily. Later, Whitcomb was shot and paralyzed by another police officer, but Davenport was on the scene for that development as well, and Whitcomb has been seething with rage ever since.

Now confined to a wheelchair and attended to by his one remaining hooker and a drug-addled sidekick, Whitcomb decides to take his revenge on Davenport by attacking Letty. Letty, who is now fourteen going on thirty-seven, trips to the plan. She's afraid that if she tells her father, Lucas will go ape-shit and kill Whitcomb, something that she thinks would not be good either for Lucas or for herself. She thus decides to handle the Whitcomb problem on her own.

All of this makes for a hugely entertaining book that's at times both terrifying and hilarious. Sandford is the master of mixing these elements, and as usual, the characters and dialog are great; the plot rolls along at a rapid clip, and

My Bad Romance

Coal RunCoal Run by Tawni O'Dell
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the book that broke my desire to be a part of the local book club scene.

"Book club scene" sounds so hip, doesn't it? Well, the only thing hip about the book club I was involved in was the talk about broken hips the old ladies in the group kept on about. If I had to guess at the median age of the members, I'd say it was somewhere around 105 years old.

But I digress...

Dangerously close to a romance novel at times, Tawni O'Dell's Coal Run was still enjoyable enough for me not to hate myself for having read it. Maybe it was because there's talk of football in it, I don't know.

The female author did a credible job creating her male characters, but surprisingly her female characters are fairly cardboard-esque. They were stereotyped tools for the male main character to use or be manipulated by through the course of the novel.

The story itself, a man fighting his demons, was enjoyable and I liked the local-color details of the small Pennsylvanian coal mining town, but all in all this is disposable stuff.

It was a book club pick and there's no way in hell I would've read it on my own. So, by the time I was done and realized the time I'd wasted on it, I was left with a sick feeling in my gut...like I had a fever and the only prescription was no more book club.

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