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Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

The following is a recent review that I wrote for the Alexander Artway Archive, a very interesting photo collection that I have been working with. Alexander Artway was an architect and photographer who photographed New York City in the 1930s. You can view the photos by clicking here.

We have decided to review photography books for the Alexander Artway blog — and this first book by David Freese documents that climate change is real.

Working with the Alexander Artway Archive inspired me to write the novel Looking At Pictures. You can click here to read excerpts (or watch me on YouTube).

The blog post/review is reprinted below:

artway blog

Last year or so when taking photography classes at Temple University (so that we could apply the learning to our photo archive ) we had the good fortune of taking David Freese’s course on World Photography.

When we heard that David was introducing his new book at the Print Center in Philadelphia (formerly the Print Club), we were delighted and went to the lecture and to buy David’s book, East Coast: Arctic to Tropic, Photographs by David Freese with text by Simon Winchester and Jenna Butler.

After Hurricane Sandy — when Freese saw the devastation first hand — he was, as he writes in the book on a mission to “show the connection between a warming climate and these fragile and vulnerable low-lying areas.” The result was this coffee-table sized photography book with stunning black and white images.  The images (most of them aerial) are so visually appealing that many to us were reminiscent of trips we had taken or evocative of places we had read about.

That these images are important is underscored by the fact that this coast line with be vastly different in a generation or two. In other words, people living in the future will not see what we see if global warming is to continue its cataclysmic course.

 Freese  — who writes that he “did a lot of research on the topic” of climate change – shows us the pristine beauty of ice and cloud in Greenland at the start of his journey.

As he writes, “water, water is everywhere” and we see that this is true – not only of glacially pure remote areas but major cities as he descends down the Eastern Seaboard in his book coming to the conclusion that “the albatross of global warming and a rising sea is around our collective necks.”

Among other places, the images take us to Quebec, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia where the heavens seem to shine down in sun rays from above. Freese also shows us remote views such as “Bubble Rock and Eagle Lake,” Acadia National Park, Maine.  The image, dominated by a boulder atop a mountaintop under a sky that is palpable startles with its bold simplicity.

 The book ends in Florida with images that are as equally beautiful and stunning.  The photography is done with such skill in the tradition of landscape photographers (think Edward Weston and Ansel Adams) that at times it’s easy to forget that everything might be underwater soon.

East Coast: Arctic to Tropic is published by George F. Thompson Publishing – www.gftbooks.com

 

 

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Note: This piece of commentary is airing worldwide this week on This Way Out(TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show. Click here to hear the entire show.

 

I’ve seen a lot of history — especially in the LGBT movement. But even so, I find it helpful to have a refresher now and then. This is particularly true with LGBT history — which sadly to say has been erased with a few notable exceptions. It was in this spirit that I read three books on history. It made me reflect that knowing your history is necessary — but reading about it can also be enjoyable.

In The Right Side of History, 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism by Adrian Brooks (Cleis Press; 2015), which is put together as a collection of lively essays, many by well-known LGBT activist, writers and public figures, including Barney Frank, I learned more than a few things.

I was particularly taken with New York Times bestselling author Patricia Nell Warren’s essay on Bayard Rustin. Rustin spoke out about gay rights in the 1940s and he went on to become a major Civil Rights activist and Dr. Martin Luther King’s right hand man. Warren gets to the heart of why history is important when she writes about teaching LGBT students of color in Los Angeles who “were hungry to know that they had some towering historical role models like Rustin.”

“To a black kid who was one of the school district student commissioners at the time, I gave a copy of a biography about Rustin. He devoured the book and told me that he cried all the way through it.

“‘It’s just awesome,” the student said, “that an openly gay black man was Martin Luther King’s head guy.’”

Mark Segal’s book And Then I Danced (Akashic Books; 2015) is a historic memoir, chronicling his life in the LGBT political scene in Philadelphia where he the founder and the head of the Philadelphia Gay News, New York where he lived for a time, and on the national front. In addition to chronicling his role in LGBT history, including his important and pioneering role in housing for low-income LGBT seniors, Segal also presents his personal and family life in a warm, engaging manner and this writing extends to his interactions with public figures. Writing about meeting Hillary Clinton for the first time, Segal says:

“She gave me a warm hug and said, ‘You’re more tenacious than me!’ Coming from her, it was the ultimate compliment.”

In Literary Philadelphia (The History Press; 2015) by Thom Nickels, I particularly enjoyed the insights that Nickels a gay writer and activist provides. This includes the mention of Walt Whitman (the bearded poet was a familiar site on Market Street), along with lesser known gay writers along with non-LGBT Philadelphia literati such as James Michener and Pearl S. Buck.

In the chapter called “Poetdelphia,” he writes about poet Jim Cory and quotes him extensively about his stumbling across The Mentor Book of Major American Poets:

“‘It was sacred text. It explained everything. I still have it. Five year later, it was all about the Beats and Bohemian rebellion. Fast-forward ten years and a lot of what I was writing was gay poetry. In my sixties, I write in different modes to satisfy different ends. Short poems appeal because of the challenge of getting something complicated into seven lines, cut-ups and collage because they’re fun and with any luck can be fun for the reader too.’”

Jim and I were part of a poetry collective that he founded in the early to mid-nineties called Insight To Riot Press. We published the late Alexandra Grilikhes (among others) who is mentioned in the book. Nickels muses “If Philly poet Alexandra Grilikhes were alive today, would her various poems to female lovers in books like The Reveries …be deemed too risqué?”

In this same chapter, I was surprised to come across a photo of myself, Jim Cory, and poet CAConrad (also an Insight To Riot! collective member) taken in 1994. We all look much younger.

You know what they say. It’s a small world.

literary-philadelphia

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A version of this commentary was aired this week by This Way Out, in international LGBTQ radio news and culture wrap. Click here to listen to read more about This Way Out and to listen to the complete podcast.

In full disclosure, I often describe myself as not being a “kid person.” And it’s true — when I came out in the early 1980s, I thought I was off the hook for getting married and having children. Whew. I chronicled my young child-free lesbian life in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (2012, Bella Books):

“It was the early 1980s, a few years before lesbians were starting to take trips to the sperm banks. Most of the lesbians we knew with children had them in previous marriages — to men — and more than a few women we knew had been through painful custody battles.”

Things changed rather rapidly — but not for me. I successfully avoided the lesbian baby boom of my generation and some peer pressure to adopt. Now — safely past the child bearing and even the adopting age — I find myself wondering if LGBTQ people have changed the face of parenting — or if they what they do is any different than other (heterosexual) parents?

Society has changed, in large part, to accommodate us. But have LGBT people, in particular by parenting, changed society? Almost magically, recently published books started arriving in my mailbox to help my understanding.

Gay Fathers, Their Children, and the Making of Kinship
(Fordham University Press) by Aaron Goodfellow is the most academic of the books. It quotes Michel Foucault, the innovative French philosopher, whose work much of Queer Theory is based on. In a lay person’s terms, Foucault’s work emphasizes thinking outside the box and explains how society polices itself to maintain a conservative social order. As Goodfellow writes, Foucault

“has famously described it is not the specter of two men having and enjoying sex that unsettles the social order. Rather, it is the specter of two men who have had sex living happily and tenderly ever after that proves unbearable.”

Goodfellow’s book is a survey of many different gay men who have decided to become fathers. It emphasizes that gay men being fathers challenges the social order because there are two men — not one — in charge (as opposed to Father Knows Best).

Saving Delaney, From Surrogacy to Family (Cleis Press) by Andrea and Keston Ott-Dahl chronicles the story of a lesbian couple who gave birth to a daughter with Down syndrome. The two women were already parents of two small children when they began the journey of becoming what they thought was becoming a surrogate for another lesbian couple. Saving Delaney is an honest and compelling read. The author writes of coming full circle in facing her fears and prejudices toward disabled people to loving her daughter and becoming an advocate.

Which One of You is the Mother? by Sean Michael O’Donnell is a witty page turner with heart about the author’s true story of adopting two sons with his partner. I was fascinated by the book’s revelation that the fathers decided early on that neither child would share the fathers’ last names. In the case of the oldest son, adopted when he was around the age of nine, the author/ father who is Caucasian writes that there was no reason to change his son’s name, because it was part of his past. “It was connected to his Native American heritage.”

When I picked up Queerspawn in Love, a memoir by Kellen Anne Kaiser (She Writes Press), I was skeptical. Despite the fact of having of having four lesbian mothers (in a complicated arrangement), the author writes about a conventional girl meets boy, loses herself, and gets dumped scenario. But as I turned the well-written pages, I was drawn in by the story and by the fact that this self-described “queer spawn” had different mothers to turn to for different types of advice.

Before the end of the story, I was rooting for Kellen. I certainly identified with her sentiments when she writes:

“What if I never got married, never found the right guy? I only had to look at my mothers’ lives for the answer, in the way they have found self-satisfaction outside of men — outside of partners, too, for the most part. They are happy for their own sake. Lesbians do not live in spite of or despite of men. They build their lives to their own specifications. I have learned to take comfort in the comfort they find within themselves.”

Initially, when I finished these books, I thought about the fact that LGBTQ people need allies — and one way to get allies is to parent them. But then I realized that the parents did not only influence the children. By becoming parents, the men and women in these books became more compassionate, loving people. Being a queer parent is learning to live outside the box. For one thing, they are living outside the queer box since so many of us are happily childless.

But when a child is raised intentionally, everyone involved is changed, including society.

And that’s what it’s all about.

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originally in The Huffington Post

When I woke up and heard the news that 50 people in a nightclub were murdered by a gunman in Orlando, Florida my heart sunk. Then I heard that the club was gay and that the murderer was of Arab-American descent and publicly declared his allegiance to ISIS and my heart kind of caved in.

What can be said about such senseless violence? This is the kind of hatred that usually engenders further hatred.

One of the first things I heard on the news was the father being quoted about his son’s intense homophobia and the fact that the killing spree “had nothing to do with religion.”

Being the kind of person I am — I immediately thought it had everything to do with religion.

“People in churches and mosques need to think about what they are teaching,” I said to my partner over breakfast. “It’s not that different,” I said, “Christians, Jews, and Moslems have the same common ancestor Abraham who is in the Hebrew Bible.”

I read the Bible last year or so as research for a novel — and learned a few things about religion. I learned that modern culture is rife with biblical references. I also learned, to my surprise, that the Bible is not that anti-gay. I did find it to be extremely misogynist and violent, but I thought the anti gay parts were really taken out of context and greatly amplified. If you listen to Sarah Palin, for example, (who probably never read the actual Bible) you’d think the entire thing was an anti-gay tract.

My partner and I have been together for 31 years and you would think that there are no surprises, but I could tell she was impressed with my recently-acquired religious knowledge.

She is a deep thinker. “Of course it has to do with religion,” she replied. “Where do people learn about hate?”

Then I saw the photograph of the murderer (who was killed by authorities). To my mind, he looked gay. When I learned that he was married and had fathered a child or children, it still didn’t change my mind. There is a good chance that a man with that kind of rage inside him who specifically targeted a gay club and professed his repulsion at gay men holding hands and kissing on the street, was acting out in suppression of his deepest desires.

In full disclosure, I think far more people are gay who say they are gay. I have known more than a few gay men who specialize in straight married men. It works for these guys who don’t want to end up in a relationship. In fairness, I have known more gay men who are healthy enough to avoid men who identify as heterosexual. And through the years, I have rarely met lesbians who are interested in women who are married to men.

I’m not saying that all closeted gay people — or those who are bisexual and secretive — are gay bashers. But it is true that plenty of homophobic hate crimes, including murder, have been committed by men who can’t handle their own same-sex tendencies as was documented in American Honor Killings (2013, Akashic Books).

Granted there are also other issues at play here including gun control and the availability of automatic weapons colliding with mental health issues.

In the interest of not responding to hatred with hatred, I immediately thought of the fact that we are a human family. We have more in common than not and often there is considerable overlap between identities. I spent the day reading Guapa, a novel by Saleem Haddad (Other Press; New York; 2016).

In the novel, a man just under thirty living in an un-named middle eastern country, falls in love with another man and is walked in by his conservative grandmother with whom he lives.

The narrator is not from a religious family but he is grappling with homophobia in a deeply religious culture that includes check points, revolution, and a deep connection to family.

When the narrator reflects back on his adolescence, he gives voice to the same sentiments, unfortunately, that most young people feel regardless of their country of origin:

“I was different from everyone else.
I was doomed to be alone.
I was going to spend eternity rotting in hell.”

The narrator attends college in America — where he also grapples with homophobia and what he describes as his “Arabness” and all that that entails.

When he comes back to the Middle East and moves back in with his grandmother who raised him, he finally falls in love only to face more struggles. The narrator writes of his lover:

“He was right when he told me once that he had one foot in and one foot out. It was a balancing act, and he navigated it so effortlessly. But I was his one foot out, wasn’t I? In fact, he made sure I never met his mother. He introduced me to his father once, a few years ago at the wedding of his distant cousins. I remember being surprised at how tall his father was, but like Taymour he was very handsome.”

Judging from my reaction to the Orlando massacre, if I ever had any doubt, the LGBTQ community is home to me. I agree with President Obama when he said that gay clubs are meant to be safe spaces. I remember the days when gay clubs were not out in the open and when people of the same sex did not dare to hold hands in public.

It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been in a gay club in a good ten or fifteen years. It doesn’t matter if those murdered were all young people who I most likely would have never met. I grieve for them and their families.

The massacre is an American tragedy. It is a nightmare for the LGBTQ community. And it is a problem for people of faith. I was raised secular, but in recent years became a Unitarian Universalist — a faith that really does embrace all people, including those of us who are LGBTQ.

Being part of a religion occasionally puts me in contact with people from other religions who are not so welcoming. I usually don’t mind when I am the LGBTQ spokesperson — and I do understand that being myself and being out can change hearts and minds.

Religion is still evolving. I am sometimes astounded that traditional religions are changing at all — such as the time I drove by a church in my neighborhood and did a double take at a “Happy Pride” sign outside. But other times, I am appalled that many religions are not changing fast enough and the young people raised in them feel compelled to leave.

As we can see from the Orlando massacre, religion is not, in fact, changing fast enough for young people and their families who are found in all religions and denominations.

Where does hatred come from?

 

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I turned on the television news at exactly the wrong moment and saw Kim Davis standing on stage between (Republican presidential hopeful) Mike Huckabee and her lawyer. Kim, the homophobic clerk in Kentucky who was jailed for not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, defying the supreme court and using her alleged religious beliefs as an excuse. When I saw her on television, she had just been released from jail and was basking in the moment.

In full disclosure, the sight of her almost made steam come out of my ears. I asked myself why I was so furious. I am a lesbian in my mid-fifties. I’ve been out since my early twenties. I’m no stranger to bigotry. The fact that the LGBT community incited someone like Davis to break the law and go to jail is progress. After all, she was protesting our Supreme Court victory.

I decided that I was furious because I grew up in “Pennsyltucky.” In fact, I still live in the state of Pennsylvania, though in my early twenties I “escaped” from a working class suburban neighborhood to a part of Philadelphia that is known to be LGBT friendly (but is not always).

I belong to a Unitarian Universalist Church (joining a church was a surprise even to me). My secular background is something that I wrote about in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters

This morning in church, a fifty or sixty something African American man stood up and told us that he had an argument with someone about Kim Davis: “To me, the business in Kentucky reminded me of Civil Rights.”

Now, I’ve long recognized that being white and LGBT is vastly different from the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. For one thing, a white LGBT person can choose not to be out (even if that choice is often unhealthy). But the gentleman in my church had a point. And If it’s not the same thing as historic bigotry against African Americans, there are some pretty strong parallels. By the time I came home from church, I realized that some positive things actually came out of the Kim Davis debacle.

For one thing, I experienced seeing someone who may be changing his mind about LGBT rights. That is why I’m part of a diverse faith community (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Unitarian’s call it a “Beloved Community“). I get to witness people’s shifting viewpoints and, in turn, am influenced by others. Then I went online and did a quick search on Kim Davis. I found a postcard of Lea DeLaria on The Huffington Post United Kingdom.

The postcard shows Lea DeLaria (the real life lesbian actress from the prison themed Netflix series Orange Is The New Black) with text superimposed that reads: “Welcome to jail, Kim Davis. I get to be your fifth husband.”

That postcard (and the others on the same page) is definitely a positive thing that came out of the situation — positively hilarious.

The “business in Kentucky” definitely underscored the importance of the book I just read, Crooked Letter i: Coming Out In the South. The book is a collection of essays, with a Foreword by Dorothy Allison, edited by Connie Griffin.

Dorothy Allison (the Southern born lesbian feminist author of the novel, Bastard Out of Carolina) writes:

“…My mother’s hopes and dreams for me were as heavy as my stepfather’s contempt and lust. I was the one who escaped but who really escapes? …. In this new wondrous age with Supreme Court decisions affirming gay and lesbian marriages, and gender being redefined as nowhere near as rigid as it has previously been defined, I sometimes wonder if anyone knows what our lives were like at the time when I was a young woman, trying to figure out how to live my life honestly in the face of so much hatred and danger. Who are we if we cannot speak truthfully about our lives?”

The stories are filled with religion — Southern Baptist, Fundamentalist Christian, you name it. It’s not surprising or shouldn’t be — but it is. At first I was appalled at the damage done to people in the name of religion.

Logan Knight, who transitioned from female to male, writes as he returns to his home town years after he left:

“This is what I know, only because I have seen it before. There will be no yelling, no crying; no sermons. If my grandmother cannot reconcile who I am against her religion, if the musculature of my shoulders is an affront to her beliefs, she will simply forget me. She will not speak to me; she will not acknowledge my presence in her house ever again. The sun burns into my arms, and I tense with nervousness.”

While the stories by LGBT people who had to break ties with their families are poignant and heartbreaking. In the ending of Knight’s essay and in the content of other essays in this collection, I began to see another narrative. There is not only acceptance of family and friends but warmth and real love.

People — including Southerners and religious people — are a collection in individuals. They have their own beliefs.

Previously in The Huffington Post and OpEdNews.com

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Last summer, it was my pleasure to see the Woodstock Historical Society show “Living Large,” based on a book by the same name written by Joseph P. Eckhardt  (WoodstockArts 2015). The book chronicles the life of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, a lesbian couple, who moved to Woodstock NY in the 1920s and stayed.  The two women were both artists (Wilna was also a comedic actress in the silent films of the 1920s), and the show includes many paintings, drawings, and photographs that they took.  I’m writing a review of the book for The Huffington Post. Click here to read the review.  Meanwhile, here’s some photos of the show:

Historical Society of Woodstock Living Large exhibitionWoodstock Historical SocietyWoodstock Hist. Society -- portrait of Nan Mason & Wilna HerveyWoodstock Historical Society Gaylite CandlesWoodstock Historical Society Living LargeWoodstock Historical SocietyWoodstock Historical Soc. blue bowl fishWoodstock Historical Society Janet Mason woodstock-historic-soc-frame-mirror-Janet-Mason

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Note:  This review ran this week on the international LGBT radio syndicate This Way Out. Originally, it was published on The Huffington Post.

In reading two memoirs by members of the LGBT community, I was reminded of our similarities and differences. In full disclosure, I have to admit being a fan of the show “Orange is The New Black” — the popular Netflix series. I was delighted when I found out about the memoir Out of Orange by Cleary Wolters (2015; HarperOne). Cleary is the real life lesbian counterpart to the character Alex Vause on the series. Finally, I thought. The book details Cleary’s involvement in the high stakes world of international drug smuggling (very unusual for a lesbian) and her unfolding romance with Piper Kerman (whose experience the Netflix series is based on).

In prose that is brilliant (at times breathtaking), Cleary also offers us a story of regret and redemption. At one point when in jail and thinking about her future, Cleary reflects:

“I could see myself coming back, getting back to work in software. I might be close to forty-seven by then, but I would still have some good years left in me. My whole life wasn’t wasted. Maybe I could even write a book about the whole ordeal and save someone foolish from making my mistakes.”

Wolters father, who she was close to, died while she was in prison. She writes unflinchingly about her ordeals in the violent and overcrowded prison system. But ultimately she takes responsibility for her own mistakes and in the Epilogue apologizes to “generations of nameless families troubled by addiction.” Drug trafficking is not a victimless crime.

I was drawn to Bettyville (2015; Viking), a memoir by George Hodgman because it is a story of a gay man who returns to his hometown of Paris, Missouri to care for his mother when she is in her nineties. The writing is witticism taken to new heights. It’s not hard to see where Hodgman gets his own quirky sense of humor:

“I hear Betty’s voice from the hall: ‘Who turned up the air-conditioning so high? He’s trying to freeze me out.’

And here she is, all ninety years of her, curlers in disarray, chuckling a bit to herself for no reason, peeking into our guest room where I have been mostly not sleeping. It is the last place in America with shag carpet. In it, I have discovered what I believe to be a toenail from high school.”

Hodgman puts his life on hold when he finds his mother doing things like trying to put her sock on over her shoe:

“I am doing my best here. I will make it back to New York, but frankly, to spend some time in Paris, Missouri, is to come to question the city, where it is normal to work 24/7, tapping away on your BlackBerry for someone who will fire you in an instant, but crazy to pause to help some you love when they are falling.”

In the process of caring for his mother, this middle aged man, who is an only child, re-examines his childhood and adolescence filled with secrets and self hate as he came of age in small town America with zero role models for being gay. He examines his own young adulthood, including his relationship with his father. He also reflects on surviving the AIDS epidemic in the years when it swept through the gay community.

When I finished these two very different memoirs, I found it interesting that they both ended up in the same place with adult children taking care of elderly parents. As members of the LGBT community, we are different and but we are also are the same as anyone else. We often have elderly parents and we often take care of them. I chronicled my own journey in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books 2012). We often have pets and they often are important topics in our writings and conversations. We don’t fight for “special rights” but demand human rights.

To hear this review on This Way Out, click here.

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