What I've Been Reading

Some books I've enjoyed lately.


THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K Dick (Vintage 1962)

One of the most astonishing books I’ve read in a very long time, it reverberates long after you close its covers. This parable of good and evil, and the illusory nature of truth, depicts a post-World War II world where Germany and Japan have carved up much of the globe between them, including North America. Here there is no God, only politics and the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of divination. Five stories overlap, all connected by a mysterious novel, penned by a man believed to reside in a tower protected by barbed wire, recounting an alternate world where peace and goodness reign instead of despotism and terror. With its final revelatory passage, one of the most subversive reveals in all literature, Dick’s vision resonates powerfully with today’s deeply unsettled world. Clearly, this is the kind of book that inspired such ground-breaking contemporary works as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler (Vintage 1939)

Did Humphrey Bogart make Philip Marlowe famous or did Philip Marlowe make Humphrey Bogart famous? It’s hard to say—their identities are so intertwined. Still, it’s fair to say that PI Marlowe can stand on his own. While the criminal element seems dated—a man renting (!) pornography is gunned down in his home—the writing is fine and fun (yes, ok, apart from the racism, sexism and homophobia), as Marlowe hires out to a dying millionaire with two troublesome daughters. Chandler’s acerbic dialogue gives the realism a dicey feel at times, but it helps keep the book readable when the story gets questionable in this, his first mystery. Even the prose is memorable. Read the last page and tell me it doesn’t remind you of those grand final passages in The Great Gatsby. Very fine, indeed, to produce such quality writing and make it seem apt in a noir mystery.

61 HOURS by Lee Child (Delacorte Press 2010)

That Jack Reacher guy, he sure is something. He calls women “ma’am” and has a lot to say about duty and pushes just about every button sentimental to Americans this side of the Potomac. Jack’s a super guy. He knows nearly everything long before everybody else does. Strange he doesn’t see the killer right in front of him when the clues are so obvious. Not unexpectedly, this book is about a countdown—sixty-one hours’ worth, to be precise. Along the way, a lot of stuff gets blown up, people die and secrets are revealed. Also not unexpectedly, Reacher proves himself about as empty as a Tom Cruise action hero. Oh, wait! He is a Tom Cruise action hero. Little wonder then that the characters are one-dimensional, the psychology unconvincing, the prose pedestrian, and the action non-stop and largely unbelievable. But I’m sure Lee Child, a Brit, is one very rich guy.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape 2011)

This is an unexpectedly gentle book, a work of repose, without the restless tone struck by many other Ondaatje books, even while it’s a work about restlessness itself. Perhaps it’s an apology to readers who found Ondaatje’s last novel, Divisadero, somewhat oblique and, well, plain unrewarding. Or maybe it’s just Ondaatje breaking out in a new direction. Whatever the answer, it’s a splendid and enjoyable book, a comforting tale requiring little effort on the reader’s part. Ondaatje seems to have been mesmerized by the late German-English writer WG Sebald, whose luminous works defy categorization, stretching deftly across fiction and memoir, as does this book, with a narrator named Michael recounting a ship’s journey from Sri Lanka to England in the early-1950s. At times, the book seems to question its own intent, whether it wants to be a story or a series of inter-related anecdotes, but at the end, as though he can't quite give up the notion of story, something like a plot comes to rest and you realize you've been reading an adventure yarn all along: Huckleberry Finn crossed with The Count of Monte Cristo.

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood (New Dimensions 1935, 1937, 1939)

Three works published separately, but often sold under a single cover, they comprise Isherwood's most celebrated literary gift to the world. The first, Mr Norris Changes Trains, is a lightweight, conventional novel about a young man's naïve involvement in foreign affairs in Berlin in the early 1930s. Were it not for the political weight the book took on with the events of the Second World War, it might now be overlooked altogether. The second piece, ambiguously titled The Berlin Diaries, contains the famous character sketch Sally Bowles (initially published separately from the others.) This is less a novel than a series of interrelated diary excerpts—made all the more convincing because the narrator is named Christopher Isherwood—but where the events are barely fictionalised. Taken together, these pieces spotlight the unfolding tragedy of pre-war Berlin and give a fascinating glimpse into the coming horrors firsthand. In examining the psyche of a once powerful nation burning with resentment over the burdens placed on it by the Treaty of Versailles, Isherwood describes the Berliners of his day as people who “could be made to believe in anything or anybody.” At times the book is so eerily prophetic it seems it must have been written after the war rather than before. Clearly, the writing was on the wall for all who dared to read. It is a cautionary tale to the world, and one I finished with regret.

Cities of the Plain (Parts 1&2) by Marcel Proust (Gallimard 1921-1922) (Translated by CK Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, Penguin 1983)

Titled Sodome et Gomorrhe in French, this is the last volume of his work that Proust edited. (The remaining three were edited by his brother, Robert, after Proust's death in November 1922.) Proust was worried how the book's controversial subject would be received. In fact, it aroused precious little protest at the time. Rather, its straightforward depiction of homosexuality was all but ignored. The book opens with a short chapter originally appended to the end of The Guermantes Way. This brief introduction contains some of Proust's driest humour. He suggests at one point that God erred in appointing angels to sort out the homosexuals from the heterosexuals before killing all the deviants in the Cities of the Plain, because the angels would have been swayed by a man's protest that he was a father or had a mistress, whereas a Sodomite would know immediately whether he was lying or not. There follows a pseudo-scientific disquisition on the nature of homosexuality, with fanciful comparisons to the fertilization of flowers, and later a comparison of the outcast state of homosexuality with that of Judaism, though Proust never once gives away that his interests in either are personal. For a time, he seems to be flagging in inspiration as he parodies the same old social scene, and perhaps may have despaired of ever reaching the end of his story. In truth, he seems less intrigued by his subjects, less amused by their histrionics, while letting an ennui take over in place of social criticism. A return trip to Balbec recaptures some of the “ecstasy” of the place, as well as a return to his earlier writing. Here he finds the Faubourg Saint-Germain social life reconstituted in miniature, with the Verdurins hosting their inevitable salons attended by “the little clan” of followers and sycophants. The narrative sparks fully back to life only when the Baron de Charlus takes centre stage in his pursuit of the young violinist Charlie Morel. What Proust feared might outrage the critics of his day is seen as merely another instance of a “difficult” love match, mirroring that of Charles Swann and Odette de Crécy, Robert de Saint-Loup and Rachel, and the narrator and his various infatuations, the latest being that of Albertine Simonet. Part Two: Chapter Three concludes with a magical passage evoking the return journey by train of the little clan to their various places of residence. The writing here is reminiscent of the luminous endings of books one and two, and it caps the novel beautifully. Oddly, Proust appended a short but entirely unnecessary Chapter Four that seems to recant the previous passage. The writing is at times over the top, while the passage serves only to subvert the narrator's amusing but self-deluded declaration in the previous section that he will not marry Albertine.

The Private Patient by PD James

Her more ardent fans call her the Queen of Crime. At best she can but be the reigning Queen of Crime, for the title was filled a generation earlier, possibly for all time, by Agatha Christie. Given the inherent limitations of the mystery genre, and despite any recent experimentation by such quirky masters as John Lancaster and John Burdett, Christie covered the bases with astonishing thoroughness long ago. When it comes down to it, James's solutions are just not as shockingly clever. What she offers is a brisk, clear prose and realistic, admirable characters. No zany über-intellectuals like Hercule Poirot or canny little old ladies with amazing observational powers and a penchant for knitting the clues together like Jane Marple, James's Adam Dalgliesh is more of an Atticus Finch, with his passion for truth and justice in whatever form they take. The Private Patient deals with the murder of an investigative journalist who checks into a clinic for plastic surgery, but gets more than she bargained for. It's among James's better books, which is refreshing when you consider it was published when she was eighty-five. Her novels often end in dramatic scenes that are far more literary than realistic—this one features a startling climax at a mini-Stonehenge in Dorset—but then they are literary thrillers, so why shouldn't they? If Death In Holy Orders is James at her best (though she tips her hand far too early for my liking in that one) then The Private Patient is not far behind.

Arkansas by David Leavitt (Houghton Mifflin 1997)

Leavitt is one of the few writers whose work is consistently gay, yet manages to maintain a general readership. He walks a fine line between keeping his more astute gay readers interested while not putting off the straight readers who might not be interested in gay life or in reading such frankly sexual material. I think he does it well. Arkansas is a collection of three novellas, including the celebrated “The Term Paper Artist”, wherein a character with the same name as the author relates his account of writing term papers for college boys in exchange for sex. “The Wooden Anniversary” features Celia, Lizzie and Nathan, characters we have met previously. Here, they gather for a reunion at a cooking school in Italy owned by Lizzie and her absentee husband. It's the weakest of the stories, though these same characters have dazzled elsewhere (A Place I've Never Been). "Saturn Street" is a return to form, as a floundering writer delivers meals to AIDS patients and falls in love with one of them. It's a reminder that Leavitt is one of those writers who can move us deeply with a relatively simple tale.

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie (Dodd, Mead 1944) (**)

A little more than halfway through this book, Inspector Battle stops to wish that his colleague, Hercule Poirot, were on the scene. So, I fear, will many readers. While the mystery is as tangy as any (with the usual concoction of misfits), it feels as if something is missing. What's missing is the moral centre of Christie's universe, as personified by Poirot. As much as the cleverness of Christie's mysteries amaze us, it is Poirot's wisdom and outlook on life that makes us feel better when faced with the perceived injustices of the world. Without Poirot to frame things for us, undeserved violence seems just that. In the current exercise, a woman is murdered while hosting some rather ungrateful guests. Her old-fashioned morality has unsettled more than a few of them, including a nephew-by-marriage who invites both his current and ex-wife along for the ride. The psychology of several of the characters is rather remarkable when viewed in hindsight, but too much is revealed only in the closing moments to make the book really enjoyable, and the final scene is utterly unbelievable.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (Riverhead 2011)

While Vowell is one of my favourite essayists and public smart alecks, this is not the book in which to discover her talents or savour her wit. An all-too-infrequently droll recounting of the annexation (read “theft”) of the Hawaiian Islands by the US, it's mostly an uninspired rehashing of various accounts by others (including Hawaii's last queen, Liliuokalani) that attempts to do for Hawaii what Vowell's previous book, The Wordy Shipmates, did for the pilgrim founders of America. Once again, Vowell succumbs to the temptation to extol American democracy as the acme of human achievement, which tends to stick in the gorge of those who don't fully buy into the idea that any system that allows the likes of Ronald Reagan or George W Bush to be elected president (or not elected, depending on your take on history, and not to mention potential president-elect, Sarah Palin) is really an example of something you would want to brag about.

Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie (Collins 1955) (**)

Another clever mystery, but not an exceptionally enjoyable one. This latter fact stems from the almost cartoon-like simplicity of a number of the characters. Where that quality is sometimes amusing in Christie's work, here it is merely annoying, as she heaps clichéd students on top of clichéd foreigners. There's always a bit of xenophobia lurking in Dame Agatha's work—a not atypical English attitude at the time, rather than being particular to Christie herself, though one wishes she would rise above it. Here, it comes to the fore far too often, as the beloved Hercule Poirot investigates a death at a student-housing complex where a slashed knapsack leads him to uncover greater deviousness. Christie is usually at her weakest when she succumbs to writing social commentary, and this book is a case in point.

The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (****)

The ultimate hat trick, this, along with And Then There Were None, Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, and Murder On The Orient Express, comprises Christie's grand slam. Read it and weep. Still, that's not to say you can fully appreciate these titles without reading others, such as The Mysterious Affair At Styles (Poirot's first case) or such gems as Three Act Tragedy or the highly underrated Crooked House. You need to layer your reading of the great Christie titles with some that are merely clever and of an inspired deviousness to fully appreciate her range of creative ingenuity.

Borkmann's Point by Håkan Nesser (Trans. by Laurie Thompson) (Anchor 2007, orig. Swedish 1994)

This is the second appearance of Nesser's urbane but slightly crotchety Inspector Van Veeteren. While on retreat on the coast of the always-unnamed country where he resides, Van Veeteren is ordered to bring his professional skills to a nearby small town where a murder has just taken place. There, he meets the town's soon-to-be-retired chief of police, who shares his tastes in food, wine and chess. Nesser is my kind of mystery writer: good, straightforward prose, enjoyable characters and intelligent, not overly spectacular plots. This one pushes the boundaries of the latter, however, with the eyebrow-raising antics of an axe murderer, but it's still an enjoyable book. His style puts me in mind of the slow, carefully executed unfolding of Joseph Hansen's Dave Brandstetter series.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima (Vintage 1994, trans. from Japanese by John Nathan, orig, 1963)

Mishima's books are so darkly compelling you might think he always knew he was going to kill himself so spectacularly one day. (He committed hara-kiri publicly at the age of 45.) The horror lurking in this book is so obvious, however, that for me there are few surprises. For that reason, it doesn't live up to some of his earlier books like Thirst For Love or Forbidden Colors, though the writing—as always with Mishima—is admirable. Ryuji, a simple, good-hearted sailor, falls for the widow Fusako. Their love engenders conflicting emotions in Fusako's 13-year-old son, Noboru, who has associations with a gang of teenage nihilists bent on destruction. As the sailor abandons the sea for domestic pleasure, Noboru loses respect for the one thing he felt “pure” about Ryuji. Catastrophe results.


Double Vision by Pat Barker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2003)

I wouldn't mind living in a Pat Barker novel. Her characters are intelligent, self-aware and seldom bewildered for long by the curves that life throws at them. They know what's what and don't make excuses for their shortcomings. I was surprised I hadn't heard of this title before, because it touches on themes in my novel, The Honey Locust. Kate is a British sculptor whose journalist husband, Ben, died in the war in Afghanistan. Stephen, Ben's friend and colleague, survives to write a book about their experiences, entering Kate's world to do so. While Barker's main theme is violence, her underlying thesis is the almost symbiotic role that the media plays in exploring and exploiting violence, and questions whether anyone can escape its reach.


Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh (Harper Perennial 2004)

A novella, and therefore not as satisfying as Welsh's first novel, the richly rewarding The Cutting Room, her second book still packs a punch in bringing the murdered poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe to life. Welsh neatly evokes the political turmoil and intrigues of Elizabethan England that Marlowe, said to have been a spy, would have encountered. The story covers the last three days of his life, as the doomed writer fights charges of blasphemy and rumours about his flagrant sexuality, while the Privy Council threatens him with death. Haunting and atmospheric.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Penguin Modern Classics, orig. Hogarth 1925)

There are a handful of books that strike me as masterpieces, unique and utterly unforgettable. Mrs Dalloway is one of those. (Intriguingly, so is its spiritual sequel, Michael Cunningham's The Hours.) If this were to be the last book I read, that would be agreeable to me. It beguiles, enchants, and fills me with wonder, though oddly, the first time I read it, it haunted me so much that I couldn't open it again for a decade. Not bad for a slender volume written by a home-schooled manic-depressive who self-published her own works, endlessly experimenting with her style and never writing the same book twice. Whenever I want a good dose of pure literature, this book fits the bill. Still, it feels light, not heavy like Joyce. Its simple story takes place during the course of a single day, as an ordinary woman prepares to give a party. But, oh, what happens during that day! Friends returning from the long-dead past, suicide, and finally, of course, a party.


The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust (Orig. Gallimard 1920-1921, translated by CK Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, Penguin 1983)

With the end of the war, publication of In Search of Lost Time continued apace. Volume three initially appeared in two parts. By then it had been roughly eight years since the appearance of the original title, Swann's Way, and interest in Proust's work had grown considerably, both at home and abroad. Here, the narrator, now in his 20's, has moved with his family to the fashionable Hôtel de Guermantes, where he comes across the beautiful Duchesse de Guermantes almost daily—to his joy and her chagrin. He nurtures his friendship with her nephew, Robert de Saint Loup, hoping it will lead to an introduction to his aunt, with whom he has become obsessed. Read More...

The Waves by Virginia Woolf (Harcourt 1931)

Woolf considered this a “playpoem” rather than a novel. Many think it her masterpiece. I find it stodgy and dull. To her credit, she was a continual experimenter, which gives her more successful books their edge. Presaging the beatnik fiction of a generation later, The Waves has a dreamlike quality, with its rapturous outpouring of ephemera. It's not as formless as the title suggests, however, consisting of internal monologues by six characters, broken by short descriptive passages of a seascape from dawn to dusk. Still, it lacks the cohesiveness of a book like William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, whose drug-induced hallucinations give that novel both its form and visionary style. Instead, Woolf's seventh novel comes across as a jumble of sensation and memories, not unlike Bob Dylan's even more abstract scratchings, Tarantula. Do we care that a character echoes a poem by the poet Shelley or that the absent seventh character, Percival, is a stand-in for Woolf's dead brother, Thoby? Sadly not. The references aren't rooted in anything concrete enough for a reader who is not a Woolf scholar. Despite its noble intentions, which emerge in the book's latter passages as the lives of the six characters draw to a close, the overall effect brings to mind the character Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous, whose mental machinations in comprehending the changing of the calendar at New Years' are described by Edina Monsoon as “just clearing a blockage.”

Endless Night by Agatha Christie (Dodd, Mead 1968)

I sometimes wonder if Christie fooled even herself with this volume. The first four-fifths move along the lines of a competent, if not overly compelling romance. If you were to set it aside before finishing the final few chapters, you might be tempted to write it off as an odd experiment. At the last minute, however, things change drastically and you see that Christie had her bag of tricks ready the whole time. In actuality, it's a mystery disguised as a romance. And though it may not be her best work, you admire her for trying to break down conventions at a time in her career when she could easily have relied on standard formulas. For that alone, it's worth reading. (**)

The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd (Vintage 1993)

This award winning story-within-a-story spans roughly the first third of the twentieth century. The prose is vivid and enjoyable. The “outer” story concerns a former doctor who contacts his grown daughter, previously unaware of his existence, to help him resolve a problem from his younger years—the story within. Kay, a beleaguered architect in 1930's Los Angeles, puts aside her life to follow her father to Portugal to find a lost love. Whether the outer story needs to be there to resolve the inner one is debatable. The highly romantic tale leads to Manila just after the Spanish-American war, and even manages to include an early fateful experiment in aeronautics.


Funerals Are Fatal (a.k.a. After The Funeral) by Agatha Christie (Dodd, Mead 1953)

One of the more wicked and devious books from Christie's mid-career, it's quite a late episode in Poirot's life. Here, the aging Belgian sleuth, made crusty at the thought that the youth of the day know nothing of his reputation, brings his little grey cells to bear on a remarkable case where a woman attending a funeral utters the astounding phrase, “But he was murdered, wasn't he?” thereby setting an unfortunate chain of events into motion. While the beginning seems a bit over-populated with relatives of the deceased (so much so that Christie included a cast list and family tree), things smooth out eventually and the way is made clear by the time Poirot arrives on the scene. The solution is a bit fanciful, but it's a showstopper nonetheless. (***)

Poirot Loses A Client (a.k.a. Dumb Witness) by Agatha Christie (Dodd, Mead & Co. 1937)

Here's another good, solid mystery, written fairly early in Christie's career, though it dispenses clues a bit too liberally, with Poirot's methodical detection and his insistent exhortations to his companion, Hastings, to “follow the psychology,” making for an all too easy solution. An elderly woman with a houseful of relatives suffers a fall after being warned that her nephew and nieces feel she's hording their future inheritance too closely for her own good. With a change of wills, they are all suddenly disinherited, but, alas! Death pays a visit regardless. Her missive to Poirot arrives too late for him to save his client's life, but not too late for the egg-headed Belgian to solve her murder. (***)

Daddy's Girl by John Milne (No Exile 1988)

I came late to the John Milne fan club, but am now a committed member. Finding info on Milne is another story, however. Like his shadowy, one-legged sleuth, Jimmy Jenner, he seems to shun the spotlight, or else has no interest in posting a presence on the web. Milne follows in the tradition of classic American noir, but with an English shamus who stands tall in the shadows of his US counterparts. Jenner is a former-cop who hires out privately, while chasing a skirt or two. In this, his third adventure, a Hollywood star-turned-author hires him to find his teenaged daughter. Not surprisingly, Daddy's Little Girl has got herself into a sticky situation across the channel in Paris. While tracking her down, Jenner winds up a suspect in a political assassination case. Although not quite as impressive as its prequel, Shadowplay, it's still a well-twisted piece of yarn.

They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie (Harper 1951)

One of a handful of truly terrible Christie books, it proves she was not above publishing dreck. A thriller, it features none of her remarkable sleight-of-hand turns, and frequently borders on the ridiculous as she explores her theme of a cabal of international terrorists seeking in some vague way to subvert the world economy—a theme she would return to with even more disastrous results in her late-career thriller, Passenger From Frankfurt. On the plus side, Christie's love for the Middle East shines here. Apparently, the demure Dame was once known for cavorting in the nightlife of Cairo and other Brit-patronized Arab cities before she became world-famous. (*)


A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby (Riverhead 2005)

One of the funniest books I've read in a very long time, perhaps second only to my all-time favourite funny novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (but keep checking, my favourites change from time to time), though not quite so literary. In this, four of the unlikeliest misfits to end up together converge on a rooftop known as Topper's Block, a preferred "topping off" spot for those intent on committing suicide, on New Year's Eve. A disgraced former-TV host, a mother of a severely disabled child, a failed rock-n-roll musician and a teenage nutcase gather and dissect the various reasons for their personal sense of failure and what they intend to do about it. While the themes may be dark, you won't stop laughing at the inanity.

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie (Black Dog & Leventhal 1942)

Reportedly one of Dame Agatha's favourites among her works, it's easy to see why her reputation grew with each succeeding book. In this, a wounded pilot comes to a small town with his sister to recover and winds up in the midst of a killing spree preceded by a spate of poison-pen letters sent seemingly at random. If you read only for literary depth, you may never appreciate what Christie offers: a breath-taking sleight of hand coupled with a plot-making inventiveness and character profiling that is, in its way, as notable as that of Dickens'.

Nellie Without Hugo by Janet Hobhouse (Anchor 1982)

I was introduced to Hobhouse's novels in the early-90s, not long after her death at age 42. I found the books compelling and well-written then, and still think highly of them now. Hobhouse was a hybrid: American-born but British-raised, she returned to New York as an adult, where she also wrote art criticism. Her fiction explores heterosexual coupling, in the main, though gay men figure large in them and in her thinking on sex and sexuality. For me, she seemed a new Virginia Woolf, writing some of the most illuminating studies of contemporary love and sexual relationships. Her work may have provided a prototype for such future books as Sex And the City, though with far more depth and resonance. In Hobhouse's first and slightest of her four novels, Nellie is forced to come to terms with her marriage when her husband travels to Africa for seven weeks just as an old flame re-enters her life. While the sex roles occasionally seem dated, the emotional evisceration of relationships and mores is stirring. Let's hope her work is not forgotten altogether.


The Matter With Morris by David Bergen (Harper Collins 2010)

Pacifist, newspaper columnist and ardent writer of letters of moral outrage, Manitoban Morris Schutt has lived most of his life at an emotional remove. But when his son dies in Afghanistan—an event Morris feels indirectly responsible for—the façade crumbles. As it does, it costs him his marriage and makes for rocky relations with his daughters. Ultimately, Morris finds himself in retreat from modern life, technology and his family, becoming a self-ordained Robinson Crusoe of the soul. This Giller Prize-nominated novel is a compelling story of self-forgiveness, Canadian-style. Where American writers offer heroic visionaries, Canadians seem to settle for small victories and mundane realities, no doubt finding them easier to reconcile with everyday life.

The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard (Faber 1968)

In true Stoppard sleight-of-hand, the curtain rises on an audience facing a stage facing you, the real audience. On the far side, two drama critics exchange retorts and bons mots, slowly becoming enmeshed in the play they are watching as it increasingly mirrors their own lives and predicaments. The play in question is a satire on Agatha Christie's famed whodunit, The Mousetrap, done up in Stoppard's inimitable style. It's still fun, but what once seemed an almost revelatory text, a possible coda to Beckett's and Genet's Theatre of the Absurd, now reads like an early but minor piece of post-modern whimsy.

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (2010 Douglas & McIntyre)

Possibly the most talked-about Canadian book of 2010, Skibsrud's Giller Prize-winning debut novel is surprisingly slender. It's easy to read, not because it's short but because Skibsrud's voice is already mature and accomplished at the tender age of thirty. It shows a sure poetic hand and an easy grace with phrasing. It's also one of those books that can skirt the edge of the fiction/non-fiction divide without falling off. This tale of two sisters who drive their dying father from the US to Canada, and eventually learn of his brief but troubling stint in the Vietnam War, is compelling and moving.



Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie (FA Thorpe 1936)

Following swiftly on the heels of Three Act Tragedy (below), this is another of Christie's outrageously good "locked room" mysteries, again featuring Poirot. She outdoes herself in this one: the cast of characters is almost as restricted as the room in which the victim dies, for no one can be said to have entered. Moreover, there is a double twist. Although the relationships may seem a bit corny to a contemporary reader, the fun is as biting now as it was then.

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie (Berkley 1934)

An early Christie mystery featuring Inspector Poirot, which The New York Times called "Uncommonly good." I agree. By now, Christie has got very adept at her variations on a "locked room" murder. This is one of her best. The writing is smooth and the mystery tight, though she drops her clues liberally throughout. It has the added attraction of a colourful, headstrong female character nicknamed "Egg." Poirot is already on the scene when a mild-mannered clergyman is poisoned at a cocktail party. At first, he can discern no motive and thus has no lead to follow. When at last he grasps it, he is shocked by its audacity. You will be too.

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (Harper Collins 2010)

After the runaway success of his fourth novel, The Hours, a post-modern rendering of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, Cunningham was in a bind. Pressure was strong to produce something just as original and powerful, a feat nearly impossible to perform. Yet, in a way, he met the challenge with Specimen Days, a cross between a Victorian ghost story, a contemporary thriller and speculative fiction. Nobody could say it wasn't original or memorable. Yet it challenged the reader without trying to placate, and thus Cunningham made the journey across that most perilous of bridges, the one of being eclipsed by success.

This novel, his sixth, is the book everyone was expecting after The Hours, a softer, less spectacular tale of ordinary people in contemporary New York. It combines traces of The Great Gatsby, Death In Venice and once again, Mrs. Dalloway, among others. Peter Harris, a comfortably successful, mid-forties New Yorker, faces a mid-life crisis on the arrival of his wife's younger brother, Ethan, a drug addict, who symbolizes great beauty and the perilous unknown.

Like Gatsby's Nick Caraway, Harris finds himself surrounded by mind-boggling wealth, which he caters to by selling art. There is no Jay Gatsby on his horizon, however (or even next door across a patch of lawn), just a lot of smaller fry intent on becoming something bigger. Harris knows he is not one of the elite, merely part of the fringe set that follows in its wake, like seagulls trailing a fishing boat waiting for scraps.

Cunningham's writing, as always, is graceful and stylish. One of his great tricks is to make it appear that something is happening when, in fact, nothing is happening. The Hours contains nearly 200 pages of trivial events in the lives of three seemingly unconnected characters, until the shocking suicide of a secondary character binds all three together. Here, there is even less to pull things together. A character who echoes both Richard Brown in The Hours, and his predecessor, Septimus Warren Smith, in Mrs. Dalloway, seems to be veering down the same path. Instead of suicide, however, we have a single kiss, but one that reverberates a long way through the lives of these individuals. You may find this book a less weighty version of The Hours, or, having seen the breadth of Cunningham's artistry, you may simply find it another facet of his unique and fascinating talent.

  The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith (Atlantic Monthly Press 1962)

This story of a young man who sparks a chain of murders by peeping, rather innocently, into the kitchen window of a young woman he idolizes, gives a powerful claustrophobic thrust to small-town, mid-20th century America. Highsmith is almost as interesting for her personal life as for her numerous books, having reportedly been a mean-spirited alcoholic and bisexual, one of whose lovers committed suicide, which may in part have been the inspiration for this book. The writing is clear, crisp and even-paced, with traces of literary existentialism, though the bloody denouement might raise an eyebrow or two, as will the protagonist's long-suffering through the slings and arrows of outrageous small-town America.

Thirst For Love by Yukio Mishima (Vintage, orig. 1950, trans. from the Japanese by Alfred H Marks 1969)

Mishima's second novel, published when he was 25, takes place in post-war Japan, as the country hovered between ruins and the massive push to rebuild that would place it in the economic forefront for decades to come. The action unfolds in the build-up to and aftermath of the Autumn Equinox, a symbolic time of reverence and sacrifice for the dead. Etsuko, a repressed young woman whose philandering husband has died, moves to the country to live with her retired father-in-law. While submitting to the older man's unwanted sexual advances, she falls in love with the attractive young servant Saburo, who barely notices her. This perfectly calibrated tale of erotic despair and self-recrimination culminates in a dark and disturbing ending.

The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald (Knopf 1958)

Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, was American-born and Canadian-raised. His most successful character, Lew Archer, is at the heart of this and many other volumes of noir writing. Macdonald is one of the early genre writers revered as both a good crime writer and a literary stylist. Indeed, his prose has moments evocative of Scott Fitzgerald. His weakness, however, is the corny, tough-guy dialogue that so many of his characters spout. Nevertheless, his mysteries have edge and he can twist his plots along with the best of them. In this volume, a runaway from a mental institution turns to Archer for help. He gets it, despite his best efforts to resist Archer's uncanny ability to read into other people's characters.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust (Gallimard 1919, trans. as Within a Budding Grove, by CK Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin 1983)

Publication of the second volume of In Search of Lost Time was delayed from 1914 to 1919. In the meantime, Proust waited out World War One writing almost ceaselessly in his cork-lined study at 102 Boulevard Haussmann. This book would eventually win for him the coveted Prix Goncourt, France's prize for "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year."

The volume is divided in two sections: "Madame Swann at Home" and "Place-Names—the Place." Here, we find the narrator entering early adulthood. In part one, he nurses an adolescent obsession with Gilberte Swann, daughter of Charles Swann and his mistress—later his wife—Odette de Crécy. As with most relationships in Proust, it's a tortured one. "There can be no peace of mind in love," the narrator tells us, "for what one has obtained is never anything but a new starting point for further desires." A sure recipe for disaster. The narrator finds consolation for his unrequited feelings by cultivating a friendship with Madame Swann, until he finally breaks with Gilberte. To my mind, it's one of the slower, least satisfying sections in the series.

Part two picks up the pace as the narrator and his grandmother travel to Balbec, a ritzy summer beach colony, where the narrator, always unnamed, hopes to "get over" his love for Gilberte.. Here, Proust further develops three major characters: the insidious Baron de Charlus, whom he considered his main character, the aristocratic Robert de Saint-Loup, who will become the narrator's best friend, as well as Albertine, his grandest obsession.

This is both the most compelling and most annoying section of the book. It's here we meet the "little band" of girls who roughhouse and tumble across the beach like acrobats, when they're not cycling or playing golf. At one point, one of them jumps over the body of a reclining elderly man on the beach, while the others cheer her on. Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking they sound more like a gang of rowdy boys, described variously by Proust as "thoughtless", "cruel", "bad", "hard", and "Dionysian." Add to this the fact that several of the names of the more prominent members of the little band are just one letter away from being boys' names, as the narrator contemplates which he will choose to fall in love with.

The falseness of the little band's sexual identity is obvious to the point of disbelief to anyone who grew up learning to hide his or her amorous inclinations, as Proust seems to be doing. On the other hand, Proust's psychological acuity shines in his observations of the tritest through to the profoundest aspects of love. As well, it has the most breathtaking summation of almost any novel ever written, no mean feat for a one-time society gossip columnist.

The Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri

Camilleri may be the most successful Italian writer since Dante. His popular, stripped-down mysteries are set in the fictional village of Vigáta, Sicily. Camilleri came late to writing mysteries, having been a film and stage writer and director, as well as an author of historical fiction. In his sixties, he created his most famous character, the crusty yet philosophical Inspector Salvo Montalbano, who grimly contemplates the indignities of middle age while solving crimes. Much of the book's humour comes from the farcical interactions between characters, particularly Montalbano and his rustically droll assistant, Catarella. The plot of this one is a bit too slight, however, even for someone like me who believes the writing is more important than the murder. In this case, two women are the crime's only real suspects, one the mistress of the victim and the other his sister. There are occasional attempts to toss in other potential suspects, but in the end they're not highly developed. As a result, the book feels more like a comedy sketch than a full-blooded mystery.

Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie (Signet 1930)

An early Christie, and the first to employ Miss Jane Marple, that diligent do-gooder with the pessimistic outlook on her fellow human beings. This is clearly a book Christie put a good deal of thought into, as all the loose ends tie up ever so neatly in a rather impressive way. A much-loathed magistrate is murdered in the vicarage at St Mary Mead. Suddenly everyone in the vicinity comes under suspicion for one reason or other. It takes Marple's all-seeing eye and quick wits to put the pieces in place, which she eventually does to good end. Plenty of fun characters and outrageous quips.

Forbidden Colors by Yukio Mishima (Avon 1968, trans. by Alfred H Marks, orig. Japanese 1951)

Mishima was a bit of a boy genius. This, his third book and only fully gay novel, was published when he was 25.  Subtitled in English "A Novel Of Sexual Anguish" (no doubt to suit the mores of the times), it's more a coming of age than a coming out story. In tone, it's as if Proust and Genet conspired to rewrite Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, combining it with Thomas Mann's Death In Venice: Shinsuké Hinoki, an older, heterosexual novelist, becomes obsessed with a beautiful young gay man named Yuichi Minami.  Thinking he has found the most irresistible of secret weapons, Shinsuké plots revenge on everyone who has hurt or belittled him sexually. The book is strikingly contemporary, and the feel for 1950s Japanese gay life utterly convincing.   Although Mishima would later refine his style, this book seldom betrays the usual youthful writing excesses, apart from a tendency to editorialize. (My only complaint is an all-too-frequent stiffness in the translation. Marks did a better job on other Mishima books, so one wonders if the translation was rushed.) It was from Mishima that I learned the value of writing to the essence of a subject, defining and reducing to essentials.   (Seen to a particularly striking effect in some of the later short stories in the collection, Death in Midsummer.) Here, he's already well on track.  It's only a pity he didn't write more full gay-themed novels.   I rank this book with a handful of pre-Stonewall classics: Forster's Maurice, Proust's Sodom and Gomorrah, Genet's Funeral Rites, and Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, as being a great and noteworthy gay novel.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (Back Bay Books 2006)

I enjoyed this book more on a second reading, and the reason is simple: it opens with too many third-person narratives to figure out who is meant to be at its centre. Perhaps the answer is "no one." By the second reading, however, you remember only the brilliant ending rather than the confusion getting there. Unfortunately, you also note the thinly disguised coincidences that knit the plot together and how bitter and dispirited all the characters are, as though a pall of middle-aged regret had been cast over the lot of them.

As for plot, a rather glum and forgettable writer of historical mysteries intervenes in a murder attempt in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival, setting off a chain of seemingly random events that leaves more than one person dead. A witness to the attack, retired policeman Jackson Brodie, eventually becomes drawn into the circle of intrigue at the same time as his relationship with a fringe actor is unravelling. While not as lively as Atkinson's memorable literary debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, there is enough of her trademark wry humour to make it back to the book's ending, which is as thrilling the second time as it was the first.

The Nesting Dolls by Gail Bowen (McClelland & Stewart 2010)

Gail Bowen is one of my favourite crime writers, with her sly humour and no-nonsense, down-to-earth outlook on life that also happens to spill over into her books. She leaves the impression that we could all do just a little better with not too much effort, and that we would all be that much better off for it. Joanne Kilbourn, Bowen's protagonist of a dozen books, is made of the same mettle. She spars (lovingly) with her hubby Zack, a paraplegic power-lawyer, and a myriad of lost souls who tumble in and out her life. In The Nesting Dolls, Kilbourn pits herself against the elusive killer of a lesbian mother who leaves her newborn son with the boy's presumed grandparents right before she is killed. Finding out the who also helps unravel the why, and it's a doozey of a solution that fooled me right to the end.

Flesh and Blood by Michael Crummey (Anchor Canada 1998)

Compared to this collection of Newfoundland stories, most contemporary Canadian fiction seems anaemic. With minimal brushstrokes, Crummey gives us the pieces of a life in moments of transition: a break-up over dim sum, the decision to run away from home because one's father has changed the channel from documentary to hockey, a pin stuck in a map to aid in choosing a new home. What makes each Crummey tale work is the invisible magic that weaves the disparate pieces together to form a whole. They tug at your heartstrings and burst open in moments of unexpected illumination, leaving you feeling the sort of serenity you might experience on reading a William Trevor story. Rich and full of life, this is what you wish more fiction could be like.

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, translated by CK Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (Penguin 1983, original French 1913)

With the exception of F Scott Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath, no other literary figure has influenced me more than Proust, so it's no coincidence that I'm making my way through all seven volumes for the third time. It's also not a coincidence that Proust conceived his epic work around the same time Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss were expanding the symphonic form in greater and grander ways. It was the end of Romanticism and the beginning of Modernism, and for both these composers, as well as for Proust, the line demarking the two was a little blurry.

On first reading, it's easy to get lost in the labyrinth of Proust's prose, storylines and characters. It took me five years to complete all seven volumes the first time, and the reason for that was that I frequently became mesmerized by the writing and lost track of the story. As with sailing, you must look to the channel markers, or, in this case, the chapter markers. Proust knew very well what he was writing, and his sense of literary architecture on such a vast scale is second to none.

The Overture (Combray I) is an introduction to the narrator's early life, including the justly famous madeleine and lime-blossom tisane scene that precipitates the flashback to the memories comprising the entire book. Combray (II) allows further glimpses into the narrator's youth, while introducing the book's central characters, including the mature Charles Swann, a one-time friend of the narrator's grandfather. Swann In Love moves backwards to tell of the tortured love of Swann in his younger years for the courtesan Odette de Crécy, who will later become his wife. Though at times Proust's depiction of the corrupt and cynical Parisian social scene overtakes the love interest, nevertheless, it's Swann's romance that provides the through-line here, and not the other, which, though brilliantly rendered, tends to get a bit tedious. Place Names: the Name, the book's final chapter, brings the story up to date with the author's youthful obsession with the Swanns and their daughter, the whimsical and cruel Gilberte. Proust was fond of literary mirrors, and this is one of them, mirroring as it does Swann's love for Odette.

Though the book's secondary themes of art and music are never far off, Proust's greatest theme is love transmuted by memory. It's what propelled Proust in real life to write his exhaustive tome, gradually leading him from the age of thirty-seven, when he started the book in earnest, through to his death at age fifty-one, to withdraw from nearly all social activity, though his later years were also marked by a fear he would not live to complete the book. Proust's romantic affairs were, by all accounts, complicated and obsessive. To view the book's seven volumes as some sort of romantic intermediary, even as a form of emotional foreplay for his frequently unrequited feelings, would not be misguided.

Always playful and inventive, the writing seldom, if ever, feels antiquated. Nor is the influence of musical composition negligible: the theme at the end of the second chapter, for instance, artfully returns to the opening theme of the first chapter, as though it has been transformed and modulated to a higher, more rarefied, key. In the whole of the series, there is perhaps no better writing than these two opening sections.

While Swann's Way was the only volume published before World War I (as a vanity publishing project, no less), its influence was strongly felt by the time the subsequent volumes appeared. The first six books were translated into English by the controversial Scottish writer CK Scott Moncrieff, beginning in 1922. Following his death in 1930, the final volume, Time Regained, was translated by British writer Sydney Schiff, a friend of Proust's, under the alias Stephen Hudson. In 1983, Penguin published an updated translation based on Moncrieff and Schiff's version. I find Moncrieff's solo rendering a bit stiff, and prefer this revision by Terence Kilmartin. It feels like an original work, not a translation, which is my highest form of compliment in that regard. (French critic André Maurois jokingly suggested French readers learn English if they wanted to appreciate Proust at his best.) More recently, in 2002, Penguin published yet another version of the work, by seven different translators. Not only is it the first major English translation not based on Moncrieff's, it also takes off from important textual revisions (by Proust) of the original French manuscripts, discovered only in the last twenty years. A cursory glance gives this version a jaunty, contemporary feel; I look forward to reading it one day as well.

Apart from James Joyce, who felt no sympathy for Proust's work, the 1920's Anglo literary world seemed particularly susceptible to Proust's style, where it would one day achieve a more succinct expression in books like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, almost as if his languorous prose has been put through a sieve and refined to a very high degree, distilling decades of experiential existence into a single day. Still, while he has been imitated, he has seldom, if ever, been bettered. Proust minutely and obsessively explores the tangle of emotions in relationships like almost no other. At his very best, the sense of intimacy and longing invoked in these books makes for some of the most compelling reading I know.


You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L Hay (Hay House Press 1988)

I'm not a fan of self-help books, though I'm not sure why. As a good WASP, I grew up distrusting outside intervention. Seeking therapy was a sure sign that you were crazy. I expect to feel let down by these books, and often am. The more popular they are, the more pabulum they contain. I read this one solely to see whether I would recommend it to a family member recovering from an illness and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Not only is it an entertaining read, it also resonated with me on a deeper level. Like her colleague Wayne Dyer, Hay believes that focusing energy on something can shift its course of action. Dyer calls it the "power of intention", where Hay calls it an "affirmation."  Religious people, I'm told, call it prayer.  Do affirmations work? As much as self-hypnosis, I suspect. The only way to be sure is to try them, as I did. If, as some claim, affirmations are no more than self-deception, I can say I'm happy to be deceived if that's what is currently making my life better.

AUGUST  2010

The Universe In A Single Atom by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Morgan Road Books 2005)

These are more than the musings of an intelligent man of spirit looking with curiosity over the fence at the scientific side of life. The Dalai Lama shows a profound grasp of complex scientific concepts, elucidating and laying them side by side with traditional Buddhist doctrine to show not how different they are, but how remarkably similar.

At the heart of relativity theory lies the belief that a change in one affects all; so too with Buddhism. In fact, a great deal of extant Buddhist philosophy contains ideas and beliefs that dovetail nicely with findings in the world of contemporary physics. What makes it fascinating is that those beliefs preceded similar findings in physics by thousands of years.

Few have seen as much of the world as His Holiness; fewer still are as capable of making connections between its disparate elements. Lack of modernization, he reflects, brought about Tibet's political downfall; lack of understanding of spiritual principles, coupled with a predilection for science, is bringing about the downfall of humanity. If you need proof, just consider that we now have a greater capacity to destroy ourselves than at any other time in recorded history.

At times, His Holiness's humility in discussing scientific theory seems a bit over the top, especially in light of his brilliant analyses. It's probably meant to lull the sceptics into coming along for the ride before he overwhelms them with evidence of the superiority of Buddhist beliefs over science. "We got here first," he seems to say, while referencing ancient Buddhist texts that echo contemporary physics. You can spare me the humility; I'd prefer a little outright crowing, but of course that's not the Dalai Lama's style.

Proust at the Majestic by Richard Davenport-Hines (Bloomsbury 2006)

In May 1922, just weeks after putting "Fin" to the pages of his great seven-volume work, In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust attended a gala event at Paris's Majestic Hotel, a fête arranged by an American couple, Sydney and Violet Schiff, two of his greatest fans. (Sydney was later to become the first official English translator of Proust's final volume, Time Regained, following the death of CK Scott Moncrieff in 1930.) The party brought Proust together with James Joyce, Serge Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky, all among the most renowned and highly regarded members of the Modernist avante garde. While the event may have been just one more example of the Schiffs' parading Proust's friendship to the world, the desire to create an epoch-making event was no doubt genuine, if just as self-serving. Sydney Schiff had writerly ambitions and saw Proust as the living embodiment of his artistic dreams. And while both hoped for a longer acquaintanceship, Proust was to die six months to the day following one of the grandest soirées Paris had seen in decades.

Still, this book is more than a fond reminiscence of a party, however grand. It's also a perceptive critical examination of Proust's work and life, and how each affected the other. Was Proust a homosexual? Rightly or wrongly, that question lies at the heart of his writing. Today, many would say yes. While he clearly had same-sex relationships, however, the answer may not be so simple, as Davenport-Hines explains it, and therein lies the key to at least part of his very complex work. While the theory that In Search Of Lost Time is a homosexual book with the sex and sexuality of many of the characters transposed to suit the mores of the times is an intriguing one, and anyone with a modicum of gaydar can attest to feelings of sexual-psychological falseness with at least some of the characters, nevertheless, Davenport-Hines contends quite convincingly that Proust revelled in sexual ambiguity and the emotional frisson generated by his unresolved and frequently unrequited relationships, beginning with the narrator's youthful obsession with his mother. If the brain may be said to be the most important sexual organ then Proust's outright denials of his homosexuality and his protestations of a more ambiguous amitié amoreuse may have validity after all. (And, coincidentally, making this book one of the longest instances of artistic foreplay on record.)

This is a refreshing work after many similar works that don't quite so convincingly plumb the psychological depths of Proust's intense and difficult makeup, as well as his complex artistry. Not surprisingly, it stands in marked contrast to the critical reception received at the time of the books' initial publications (including the ones Proust did not live to see), as most of Proust's contemporaries were inclined either to ignore or dismiss outright the books' sexual themes—which are decidedly pronounced no matter how you read them—while a handful of critics complained in the name of public decency. The final chapter, dealing with the last months of Proust's life and the aftermath of his death (the news was greeted with the sort of reaction a rock star might hope to receive today), is surprisingly moving and convincing in its verismo. Proust at the Majestic is one of the most impressive books of Proustiana to come along, whether read in its own right or as a counterpart to the work itself.

John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (Doubleday Canada 2008)

Being a treatise on the short-lived but long-lasting happy/sad, tragic-comical life of one John Lennon, Rock Superstar Genius, or Reader Beware: your idol has clay feet.

Norman ends his exhaustive work on one of the 20th century's most important cultural icons by noting that Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, refused to endorse the finished book after speaking candidly with him and making available many sources who contributed greatly to its creation. Norman claims he was surprised by her reaction, perhaps the only disingenuous statement between these covers. Reading it, it's easy to understand her reaction, but hard to understand his. It's a remarkably candid portrait of a man who in death is revered as a "secular saint," but who in life was often a first-class asshole with attitude to burn, and who ultimately spent as much time trying to destroy the Beatles, arguably the greatest pop band of all time, as he once spent building them up. "I started the band. I disbanded it—it's as simple as that," he once said. In that, it's very much the sort of book Lennon would have admired: a no-holds-barred, spewing from the gut tell-all intent on demythologising the man behind the legend. From the beginning, Lennon comes across as an arrogant, disruptive, attention-seeking twit, but one with a great sense of humour and, ultimately, talent. Much of what has been rumoured about Lennon since the writ preventing the de-sanitization of his life has been removed is included, and here are explained the reasons for his father's absence for much of Lennon's life, his mother's philandering, Lennon's callousness toward his ex-wife Cynthia and son Julian, as well as his curiosity about bi-sexual relations, and especially his part in the death of his much-loved "best friend" Stuart Sutcliffe, who died of a brain haemorrhage a few months after John is reported to have kicked the shit out of him in what sounds suspiciously like a lovers' quarrel. So there's dirt, but there's more, and a lot of it is as much a part of the charming Lennon we all think we know and love as of the other kind, though by the time you've finished this well-researched and exhaustive tome, you will have had enough of Beatles and John Lennon for some time to come. You will probably not like Lennon more, but you will know and understand him better.

JULY 2010

Death In The Clouds by Agatha Christie (Berkley, orig. 1935)

Before Snakes On a Plane came Christie's Death In The Air, since re-titled. A wealthy and much-despised moneylender dies from snake poison on a plane ride from Paris to London. Among the suspects in her murder is none other than the redoubtable Hercule Poirot, who soon takes up the case and, with his "little grey cells," manages to solve it quite handily. A few too many clues lie between the murder and its solution for my taste, though it is not a bad book by any means.

The Big Four by Agatha Christie (Berkley 1927)

Published in the first decade of Christie's success, this Hercule Poirot mystery was pieced together from a dozen short stories focusing on crimes committed by an international ring of conspirators known as the Big Four. At the book's core lies the invention of a "new" and powerful energy source that hints at a combination of nuclear, atomic and magnetic energies. The Four's aim is world domination and their MO appears to be disruption of civilization on several fronts, a theme Christie would return to in 1970 with her eightieth book, the dismal Passenger From Frankfurt. Christie herself did not admire The Big Four, and in a letter to her agent referred to it as "that rotten book." I would agree.

The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal (Random House 1995, orig. 1948)

It's hard to believe this book caused such a furor on its publication in 1948. (Most major publications ignored it and blacklisted Vidal's subsequent books for the next six years; the NY Times refused advertising on its behalf.) Published the same year as the Kinsey Report, it must have seemed part of a concerted attack on American morals. In fact, it was the first notable volley of queer writing to appear in English by a respected author, and it remains one of the watershed novels of 20th century gay literature. Thomas Mann called it "noble" and "truthful." In the original version, a teenager named Jim Willard has a sexual encounter with a fellow high-school student, Bob Ford. Bob leaves town to join the navy and Jim spends the next seven years trying to find him, which he does with tragic consequences. Vidal later revised the book, toning down the ending considerably in a version republished in 1965. While it has its charms, it's not a very good book by any means, but back in the day it was the only game in town, so it's not surprising so many gay men grew up on it.

The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott (The Noonday Press 1990, orig. 1940)

This is my second reading of this short novel, given to me by my friend, the late Douglas LePan, who saw it as a book worthy of note. It's a concise tale of two American expats in France in the 1920s, on a summer afternoon when a peripatetic and self-absorbed Irish couple, the Cullens, drop in and leave abruptly. The woman, Madeleine, carries a falcon everywhere with her, to the dismay of her drunken husband. The hawk becomes a prism through which the characters view the world and each other, as well as a metaphor for love that embraces captivity versus freedom, and the various appetites said to inform the need to be free versus the need to stay captive. The writing is graceful and delicate, but largely unmoving. Wescott has been called a low-rent Fitzgerald by detractors, while others have compared him favourably to Katherine Anne Porter.

Naming The Bones by Louise Welsh (2010 Canongate)

This long-awaited fourth volume by one of the more interesting contemporary writers is yet another deviation from her previous books. It seems everything Welsh sets out to write is a foray into fresh fields, as though each volume completes one journey and paves the way for another. In the current book, Murray Watson, a would-be biographer of a little known Scottish poet named Archie Lunan, tracks his long-dead quarry into the past and makes some startling discoveries. With its emphasis on atmosphere—ruined castles, semi-deserted islands, and even sinkholes—it's more of a gothic novel crossed with an almost-traditional mystery. Almost, in that a good number of the mysteries are left inconclusive at the book's end. There's a bit of fun name-play—Watson, as in the bumbling Dr. Watson, Lunan as in poetic 'lunacy,' a mysterious former-mistress named Graves whose secret is literally buried, and even a foe named Baine. Frankly, I would have been tempted to dismiss this book early on if I hadn't been aware of the incisive intellect behind it. It feels as though someone said to Welsh, "Enough with the brilliance, Louise; how about writing something the rest of us will understand?" I suspect with this book Welsh is heading stolidly toward the mainstream, and no doubt it will take her there, but it may leave fans of her previous volumes bewildered at best and disappointed at worst.

JUNE 2010
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (Modern Library Edition 2001, orig. 1956)

It's not everyday that one encounters a gay classic for the first time, but this is a first reading for me. At the core of Baldwin's novel is David, a young, white American who has an affair with Giovanni, an Italian bartender in Paris in the mid-1950s, after David's girlfriend Hella leaves for an extended stay in Spain. The affair blossoms until Hella's return, when David abandons Giovanni and tragedy results.

With writing reminiscent of Fitzgerald at his unencumbered best (Gatsby, and the more luminous bits of Tycoon), this book is one of a handful of literary stepping-stones that illuminate pre-Stonewall queer experience in the 20th century. (The list includes, among other titles, Forster's Maurice—begun in 1913, though not published till 1971—works by Gide and Proust, Vidal's The City and the Pillar from 1949, the novels of Genet, and a few others, that tell us about queer life before we evolved into an integrated community with a literature of our own.)

The book is also remarkable, probably as much then as now, in that it is a novel about whites by a black author. Perhaps even rarer, it offers a startlingly clear perception of Americans abroad seen from an outsider's viewpoint. The writing is of a consistently high calibre, told through the narrator's reflections. To me, however, it lacks passion. I admire it, but can't love it the way I love Gatsby, for instance, even though I relate more readily to Baldwin's characters than Fitzgerald's. While Baldwin analyses his characters' feelings brilliantly, he seldom seems to share their suffering. He distances himself from the story, just as both Giovanni and Hella accuse David of distancing himself from them.

Perhaps this is a result of Baldwin's apprehension that his black readership would turn on him with this book (it didn't) or maybe fear that white readers might misunderstand him. (And, if so, perhaps I am one.) Or maybe it's just the result of being gay, black and an American ex-pat in a time when any of those qualities might easily cast you in the role of pariah—easier to shut down your emotions and view them from a safe distance, say, in the pages of a books. Whatever the reason, the story is nonetheless an invaluable part of queer literary history as well as a memorable read.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson (Trans. from Swedish by Reg Keeland, Penguin 2010)

This is the third and last of Stieg Larsson's highly successful Millennium series, featuring anti-social super-hacker Lisbeth Salander and hyper-moralizing rogue journalist Mikael Blomkvist. With Hornet's Nest, we hit the ground running immediately following Lisbeth's assault on Russian defector Zalanchenko at the end of The Girl Who Played With Fire. With a bullet in her brain—no small peanuts—Lisbeth is transferred to hospital and operated on. Wanted for the murders of two journalists whose report on underage prostitution lies at the heart of the previous book, Salander now waits as others argue over her fate and Blomkvist plots to free her.

With this volume, Larsson moves heavily into conspiracy theory territory, briefly recruiting even the Swedish PM as a character while focusing on a secretive government cabal believed to have covered Zalachenko's existence. The book vacillates wildly between action and rhetoric, between swiftness and inertia, but without Salander's outrageous unpredictability at its centre much of it feels oddly flat.

A total of ten books were planned for the series, including fragments of a fourth left incomplete at the time of Larsson's death, so perhaps others will appear in future. (If Mahler's tenth symphony could be successfully reconstructed after his death, then why not Larsson's books?) At times, the current volume threatens to implode from the weight of its sub-plots and secondary characters, as well as a lot of overwrought expounding on issues of sex and sexuality. Though the odds are always heavily weighted on the side of the good guys, nevertheless you still feel inclined to cheer as the would-be tension builds to a rather predictable victory for Our Side. In spite of everything, the series ends with a considerable bang rather than a whimper, and the conclusion makes it well worth the ride. Thank you, Stieg Larsson.

Harm's Way by Maureen Hynes (Brick Books 2001)

These poems are the equivalent of worry dolls, artefacts to help us wrestle with moments of dread that knot our stomach. Whether it's future worry apprehended, worry in progress, or worry for things long past worrying about, Hynes gives us TS Eliot's "fear in a handful of dust." After decades, the body of a WWI soldier is recovered with a working fountain pen intact, and the poet worries over what he might have written home had he lived. A beloved parent's descent into dementia is likened to living on the edge of a black hole, while an eclipse is imagined as a pair of black silk stockings draped across the universe, both neatly encompassing our mortality. These poems are badges of the terror as well as the joy of life, exposing the moments of panic and dread that inform us we are alive.

McPoems by Billeh Nickerson (Arsenal Pulp Press 2009)

McPoems is a snapshot album of life lessons, random moments of the real and surreal captured as fast food metaphors and wry observations. Reminiscent of Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems, McPoems offers a sly, unobtrusive look at contemporary life, granting the reader a voyeur's ringside seat at one of life's oddest feasts. What is most enjoyable about this unique collection is how Nickerson transforms ordinary moments into solid gold observations of everyday living. It also shines with his inimitable humour. Bitingly funny and full of life, these are poems to make you laugh, shake your head, and go 'huh?'

Children of Ararat by Keith Garebian (Frontenac House 2010)

This is a momentous collection rendered by a poet in his prime. Children of Ararat takes the reader on a harrowing journey beginning with the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and continuing on to the denial that lingers to this day. While the horror is made clear, there is something oddly joyful in the mourning, in the poet's ability to give voice to the long-dead. Without hyperbole, the poet evokes the gruesome events and articulates how, as the inheritor of his father's experiences, he finds himself "trapped in an abyss" created nearly a century ago. As with his previous collection, Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems, Garebian once again creates a living elegy that at times reaches almost beyond words.

MAY 2010

Johnny Come Home by Jake Arnott (Sceptre 2006)

Steeped in the UK's glam rock era, Johnny Come Home tells of a collection of highly conflicted characters. Pearson, a sensitive gay artist, is bereft over the recent suicide of his lover, a gay activist with radical terrorist ties. When some dangerous secrets land in Pearson's lap, he starts to come unravelled. His flatmate, Nina, is a would-be lesbian whose feminist instincts rebel at the least appropriate moments. She gets involved with Sweet Thing, an opportunistic young hustler Pearson brings home. Sweet Thing's main client is Johnny Chrome, an up-and-coming glam star tortured by a chronic identity crisis. With flashes of poetry and terrific insight into the psychology of his characters—neurotic pop stars, ambivalent undercover cops, music impresarios, and the everyday, out-of-joint would-be idealists who find that the ideals of the 1960s have failed them—Arnott's tragic tale evolves so smoothly you don't realize the wallop it packs till you're nearly at its end.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson (Penguin, trans. by Reg Keeland 2009)

Second in the Millennium Trilogy, this book is nearly as addictive as the first. Larsson learned a few tricks along the way so the writing tends to show a bit more, but not in a bad way. His tendency to grandstand on moral issues, however, is in full bloom here. Idealistic journalist Mikael Blomkvist and super-hacker Lisbeth Salander are once again at the heart of this volume, albeit in separate story lines. Both are intrigued by a report written by a young journalist that threatens to expose the high-profile clients of underage prostitutes. Both end up tracking a mysterious, behind-the-scenes figure named Zala, whose name invokes fear in all who know him. Once again, the story is absorbing, but I have two objections. First, if Salander is so "principled," as Blomkvist/Larsson asserts, then what does it mean when she stoops to torturing one of the accused? (As opposed to, say, getting revenge on someone who has tortured her.) Second, in a twist more befitting a Hollywood blockbuster, Salander's final "escape" skirts the edges of impossibility, putting it very much at odds with the earlier book's relative believability.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (Riverhead/Penguin 2008)

I thank God for Sarah Vowell, just because she's a declared atheist and the universe needs balance. Vowell is pretty good at providing a little balance of her own with her wounded idealist's insight into the American psyche in books like The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation. I read this volume in tandem with Steig Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire. For some reason, I couldn't help thinking of Vowell as a witty, articulate Lisbeth Salander who, in other circumstances, might just set you on fire or report your tax evasions without a second thought.

Here, Vowell sets her sights on the Puritans, America's so-called moral and philosophical founders. These, of course, are the same noble Puritans who first arrived in droves on the Mayflower, etc., and set about conquering the New World. The very same people who could on one hand thank God for the plagues decimating the native population (between 1492 and 1650, as many as nine out of ten died of diseases brought to the Americas by European settlers) and on the other hand write some of the highest pleas for godliness and brotherliness ever penned. Let's just say for argument's sake that they were a little conflicted in their aims. Read More...

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Penguin, English trans. by Reg Keeland 2008)

I wonder which, for a writer, is worse: to die unpublished or to die just before your books become an international publishing sensation. Stieg Larsson didn't worry much about the former, apparently, because he wrote his books for fun after hours and didn't do much to get them published. It wasn't long after he'd delivered the manuscripts of his Millennium Trilogy, which to date have sold nearly 30 million books and spawned three films, that he had the heart attack that killed him at the age of 50. Either way, it's gotta be hard.

There's a great deal that I like about Larsson's books—they're enjoyably addictive, as advertised—and very little that I don't like, which for me is rare. What I enjoy most are the colourful, vivid and highly principled characters—particularly Mikael Blomkvist, Millennium Magazine's diligent and good, if overly earnest journalist, and, somewhat less, the feral but brilliant Lisbeth Salander, who wins no points for congeniality and would piss me off pretty quickly if we met. But liking a character is not a criterion for being interested in reading about her. Read More...

APRIL 2010

Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whitall (House of Anansi 2009)

It's hard to imagine any one writer embodying the voice of the current generation, but if anyone can do that it might be Zoe Whittall with her life-as-a-911-call take on reality. Holding Still offers perceptive insights into the emotional landscape of three people of highly ambiguous sexuality. Billy, a has-been pop star by her early twenties, fears almost everything and has taken to repeating self-help mantras to get through the day. Josh is a transsexual EMS worker who solves the crises of other people while avoiding his own. Meanwhile, Josh's girlfriend Amy is a rich girl gone downtown for a good look at life in close-up. Clinging to their relationships like shipwreck victims stranded on ice bergs, and jumping from one to the next in an attempt to reach solid land, these characters represent a generation obsessed with death, fame and diet, providing Whitall plenty of opportunity for her trademark wry observations on contemporary life in the Big Smoke.

Devil's Keep by Phillip Finch (Pocket 2010)

I once offended a panel of mystery writers by suggesting I found it quicker to write mysteries than non-mysteries because the "formula" is easier to follow. Apparently I slighted legions of loyal genre readers with this crass statement. "Where do I find this formula? Can it be bought on a shelf?" inquired one cranky old curmudgeon in a wounded tone. The truth is, all good writing follows a formula of some sort. The craft, and a book's appeal, lie in how well and convincingly you follow or deviate from that formula. Even Shakespeare had a formula—the five-act play—and I have one when I write mysteries. It's called a traditional story arc. Call it what you want—a formula, an arc, or even a recipe—you can't make an apple pie without apples.

Having said that, this book is formula writing at its best. Finch takes us to the Philippines where some nefarious Russian thugs are busy heating up the black market in organ transplants by kidnapping peasant "donors" who can't be traced. But they make a mistake in their choice of Marivic Valencia, whose mother is related to someone who knows someone who is related to Alex Mendonza, former-member of the infamous Bravo Cell One Nine black ops team of saboteurs and professional killers. To rescue Marivic, Mendonza and his fellow saboteurs come out of retirement long enough to realize what they've been missing all these years, taking us on a rollicking ride of Good Guys versus Bad Guys.

The Return by Håkan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson (Doubleday Canada 2007, orig. Swedish 1995)

One of the trademarks of Nesser's tightly controlled writing lies in the small but ever-evolving background details of his character's personal life, making the books worth taking in order.  Unfortunately, both my library and the English language publisher were unable to comply.  This is the third Inspector Van Veeteren book, but for some reason it was the second to be translated and also the second I read.  Here, the series is advanced enough that Nesser removes Van Veeteren from active duty for the first half of the book while he's operated on for colon cancer.  It's an interesting and adventurous choice for a character so firmly rooted in the mystery at hand.  It serves to emphasize Van Veeteren's character—irascible, stubborn, impatient—as he chomps at the bit while lesser mortals go about the work, often badly, of solving the mystery of a headless, handless and footless corpse delivered to them in a rotting carpet.  On the other hand, the lesser characters are just not as interesting as Van Veeteren, so it's a relief when he returns with his dry, probing intellect and X-ray vision that enables him to read far more into the slight clues than his subordinates manage.  Indeed, the telling of the story is so oblique at times that one occasionally wonders about the translation, though Nesser's prose is so spare it seems unlikely it could be misconstrued.  There's not a great deal of satisfaction in the resolution of this case, but in that it may be truer to life than fiction.

MARCH 2010
Savage Adoration by Gale Zoë Garnett (Exile 2009)

Among Garnett's notable talents, writing has begun to occupy a central role in the last decade.  By turns wistful, romantic, sage, and always funny, her stories and characters tend to wrap themselves around your heartstrings and make themselves at home there.  Ellissa Major, an English-born veterinarian, loses her 89-year-old father when the last of his five wives makes a pre-emptive strike at controlling the family fortune.  A missing will, a crooked lawyer, various ex-wives of Johnny Major—including Ellissa's Sicilian mother—as well as some less-than-admirable step-siblings round out the colourful cast.  And "cast" it is, for this work has feature film written all over it.  (Will Mr. Ron Howard please step up to the plate?)  Witty, wonderful and wise, this is a tale for anyone who feels nostalgia for some good (and bad) old-fashioned family relations and all that they inspire.

Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett (Vintage Books 2005)

Darker in tone and conceptually more monstrous than its predecessor, Bangkok 8, this book is nonetheless another work of comic genius. For me, Burdett ranks with the likes of John Lanchester, Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith (if that's not a unique collection, I don't know what is) for brilliant, tongue-biting humour. It's the second book featuring Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the half-caste Thai Buddhist detective, and a cast of zanies who come and go as Sonchai tracks the murderer of a CIA agent. While the prose seldom reaches the inspired lunacy of its predecessor, the story's the thing to concentrate on here more than the comically profound soliloquies on the Buddhist conception of life as an inescapable interplay between being and nothingness.

Mind's Eye by Håkan Nesser (trans. by Laurie Thompson) (Pantheon Books NY 2008, orig. Swedish 1993)

Until I started reading Scandinavian mystery writers, I was unaware of their fascination for religious fundamentalism and sexual "perversions." I might have extrapolated from the film Babette's Feast, with its gloomy, albeit humorous, portrait of Danish piety.

Mind's Eye is a subtle psychological tale, rich in character and dry in tone. A middle-aged schoolteacher on a drinking binge wakes to find his wife dead. He vividly recalls their previous night's sexual escapades, but can't remember if he killed her. He cracks and ends up in a psychiatric ward.

Inspector Van Veeteren, Nesser's urbane yet crusty detective, follows the trail of clues with Holmesian precision. There's an NY Times crossword puzzle feel to it, making the case difficult but never so intellectual that you tire of trying to solve it. More of an old-fashioned mystery than a race-against-time thriller, its sly, dark humour and delicious atmosphere is quietly affecting.

The Redeemer by Jo NesbØ (translated by Don Bartlett) (Random House Canada 2009)

Jo NesbØ is one of a number of Scandinavian mystery writers considered the best in the genre today. It was that "best of the best" reputation that made me pick up this, his third bestseller, about the slaying of a Salvation Army volunteer in the darkest of Norwegian nights. What I found was a writer with literary overtones and a masterful sense of plot, but set alongside other qualities that made him far less appealing.

Much of the tale is told with an impressive sleight of hand, though one that wouldn't hold up to a careful second reading. It's the work of a virtuoso trickster whose tricks quickly tire when you realize they're largely smoke and mirrors, tied in with some pretty obvious misdirection on the author's part to keep the reader guessing. At one point, after being attacked for the nth time in as many days by a Terminator-like assassin who just won't stop coming after him, the potential victim rightly muses how he's trapped in a never-ending nightmare. It reminded me of PDQ Bach's satirical symphony with its multiple climaxes, each more portentously dramatic and definitive than the previous.

As well as being a writer, NesbØ is also a musician, stockbroker and journalist. Indeed, he gives the impression that writing is just one more thing he's good at, although in this case it's one he hasn't entirely mastered. While the plotting is impressive, all too often his characters feel as if they're being manipulated to suit the storyline, and gory details pop up every time the plot needs a kick. As a result, a truly convincing psychological portrait goes out the window and characters' motives get reduced to over-used psycho-sexual clichés.

This is not to say I won't pick up another NesbØ book, but for my money he doesn't rate with the likes of Louise Welsh or LeCarré at his best. Next time, however, I'll be hoping for more than just a brilliant surface, which is what far too many thriller authors deliver as they try to create dazzling plots that Hollywood might pay big bucks for.

Entitlement by Jonathan Bennett (ECW 2008)

Unlike their American counterparts, Canada's rich go largely unnoticed. This, Bennett rightly suggests, is because Canadians don't recognize success. Andy Kronk is given privileged insight into the secretive world of the Aspinalls, one of Canada's elite families. As a teenager, Andy befriends the troubled and troublesome Colin Aspinall, who rejects his family, and his sister, Fiona, who embraces them. Torn between the pair, Andy loses both. But this is a memory book and Andy knows a secret about the Aspinalls that he keeps to himself until a snooping journalist tricks him into recounting his story. Written in a dreamy, detached style, the book gives strong insights into Canada's frequently short-sighted values—including everything we take for granted about ourselves—as well as a vision of the youthful romantic outlook that shapes and informs us, for good and bad, in everything that follows.

Single & Single by John LeCarré (Penguin 1999)

Tiger Single is a successful British mega-financier who provides whatever services his clients require with no questions asked. Raised to follow in Tiger's footsteps, his son Oliver is at first an unwitting then an unwilling pawn in his game of international money laundering. With the dissolution of the former-USSR as backdrop, LeCarré gives us his usual zesty ride and colourful characters as father and son grapple with their love of and distaste for one another. Though I might quibble over the book's pace when it excludes such niceties as defining physical features of major characters, and I might grumble about the trite nod to Hollywood (or in this case, Pinewood) with its unexpected and inessential romance, and where I would prefer to be given greater insight into the characters' emotions, perhaps without these elements the book would be neither LeCarré nor British. To me, LeCarré is the Anthony Hopkins of thriller writers. Every work is an indelible experience, every book a small universe. It's an act of magic, an absorbing trompe l'oeil performed before our eyes. And yet after all these years the real LeCarré, like Hopkins, remains largely unknown to the public. Now that's magic.

Passenger From Frankfurt by Agatha Christie (Omniprose Ltd., orig. William Collins Sons 1970)

This was Dame Agatha Christie's eightieth book, released to coincide with her eightieth birthday, in 1970. It's not a mystery, but a thriller, and at first glance it seems as though she's trying to compete with the new crop of gritty Cold War realists like John LeCarré. That soon gives way to the realization that she's simply written a mystery without a murder, replacing it with a fantasy doomsday conspiracy theory to explain the then-current cult of youth revolt. More Wild In The Streets than The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the story suggests Hitler survived the war to be smuggled to South America, only to be replaced by a young Aryan exemplifying a modern-day Siegfried who intends to lead the youthful uprising. Ultimately, it tries too hard to be meaningful, though it's a well-meant cry for peace amid what to an older generation must often have seemed a pointless revolt. Today, however, it just seems dated and silly.

The Crooked House by Agatha Christie (Omniprose Ltd., orig. William Collins Sons 1950)

You might think this 1950 mystery a tongue-in-cheek biography of the later years of Aristotle Onassis, but for the fact that Onassis lived until 1975. The plot is simple: a shady but much-loved Greek tycoon dies at home and his family become the chief suspects. A rote quality quickly sets in as the murder is dissected and suspects are grilled. It's also replete with the sort of xenophobic asides we've come to expect and cringe at when we read the otherwise lovable and sensible Christie. On the plus side, it contains a more polished prose than Dame Agatha's earlier writing. And though it's not among her better-known works, it has a diamond of an ending that can compete with her cleverest books. No matter how many times she points out the killer, the solution eluded me. (And I'm naturally suspicious.) The plot was later pirated in a modified form for an episode of Midsomer Murders ("Vixen's Run".)

Passenger to Teheran by Vita Sackville-West (Arrow Books 1991, orig. Hogarth Press 1926)

Rich, full of surprises, and the delights of an adventurous mind, this is the most enjoyable travel book I've ever read. Sackville-West is as adept at painting a landscape in words as she is at dissecting world politics (not much different then than now, it appears) or the art and egos of writers and writing.

She began this slim volume to distract herself while sick on board a ship bound for Iraq. Ostensibly making the journey to join her husband, then posted in Persia, she was also on hiatus from writer Virginia Woolf, with whom she'd begun an affair the previous month. (Virginia and Leonard Woolf would publish this book on her return. Two years later, Woolf would produce Orlando, her extended love note to, and inspired by, Sackville-West.)

One chill January morning, Sackville-West showed up at Victoria Station, London, with trunks bearing tags that read, "Persia." Thus began the journey. On her list of essentials, she included "a knife and a corkscrew and a hat which will not get blown off," showing a mix of British pragmatism, adventurousness and an obvious love of pleasure.

For the next five months, her travels would take her by car, camel, boat, train and on foot through an incredibly varied, beautiful, and often desolate landscape, to what is now Iran. Along the way, she would pick up culture, a dog, illnesses, knick-knacks and some highly colourful experiences, before returning by way of the recently-communized USSR, about which she had some insightful observations, claiming it "…has discarded the dominant Western conception—that of Wealth as the be-all and end-all of existence—without yet achieving the peace and freedom in which the new ideals may develop."

For travel lovers, or those who love great writing, this book is a treasure.

Sugarless by James Magruder (Univ. of Wisconsin Press 2009)

At first glance, this YA story of a gay adolescent involved with an older man might come off as a high-powered teenage wank embellished by some skilful, nuanced writing. It's a good deal more, however. Wheaton, Illinois, noted as the birthplace of John Belushi, is a hotbed of Christian evangelism, American-style. It seethes with hypocrisy and repression while teenage hormones run rampant.

Magruder serves up a colourful cast of characters in depicting the life of his protagonist, Rick Lahrem, a non-entity until he discovers the one thing he is good at: public speaking. Rick's mother is an ineffectual do-gooder who turns to Jesus to make up for an unhappy family life, while his step-father is a brutal slob, his step-sister a stoner and his best friend a thug with a fascination for Nazi memorabilia.

Rick's talents make him a bit of a school hero, but raise the stakes in an unspoken battle between Rick, Jesus and his step-father for Rick's mother's affection. At the same time, Rick is "discovered" by the older man who mentors him as he introduces Rick to a world of physical and emotional adventure.

Sugarless paints a bleak picture of the American suburbs in the 1970s, at the same time lulling the reader with its familiar tale of the agonizing insecurities of gay adolescence. This isn't The Brady Bunch, however, and there are no easy answers to some difficult questions. Finally, torn between his lover and his mother, Rick makes a terrible and irrevocable choice. If you're like me, you'll be haunted by the ending long after you close the pages of this book.

Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith (Llewellyn Publications 1986)

One of the best "Western" books on the chakra system published in recent times, Wheels of Life embraces both the esoteric and the everyday. Encyclopaedic in its knowledge, it rivals Dion Fortune's The Mystical Qabalah for its intelligent treatment of the subject. It's also a pleasure to read, as Judith is as much at home discussing quantum physics as she is in taking on contemporary culture or the evolution of human consciousness. She has some very down-to-earth things to say about spirituality and sexuality, for instance, and makes cases for both the celibate and non-celibate paths. Truly a "user's guide," this is a practical and helpful book for both the novice and the advanced student.

My Night With Reg by Kevin Elyot (NHB Plays 1994)

I saw the original production of this play in London in 1994. Struck by its masterful sleight of hand, I bought the text in the theatre lobby. Over the years, it's lost none of its power and magic. Three scenes encompass the span of an evening, from dusk to dawn, spent among old friends. But all is not what it seems. What at first appears to take place over the course of a single evening actually spans years in the lives of five gay friends and a young newcomer. Except for their host, Guy, each has one thing in common: sex with a man named Reg, who never appears in the play other than through the memories of his lovers. But by the second scene, Reg is dead. This comes as a jolt to the audience, for we've been lulled into thinking it a continuation of the first scene. It's not. In fact, it follows Reg's wake, and we are smack in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. Most of the group is panicked at having slept with the dead man, and they confide their fears to Guy. But by the third scene, even Guy is dead, having willed his flat to one of Reg's lovers, a man he was secretly in love with for most of his adult life. Poignant, witty and wise, this wonderful, sad and magical play deserves to be far better known.

Arusha by JE Knowles (Spinsters Ink 2009)

This thoughtful novel opens in a small Tennessee community where Edith Rignaldi lives with her husband Joe, daughter Dana and son Jeremy. Struggling to bridge the divide between her and her family, Edith finds herself confronting the prejudices and ignorance that form the bedrock of Southern Christian thinking. As Edith's marriage unravels, she finds herself on unfamiliar ground. A chance meeting with an older woman named Linda takes her to Arusha, Tanzania. There, Edith begins to glimpse the truth of who and what she really is. In a sure, quiet voice the author gives an insightful look into her characters' lives in this family saga reminiscent of the early novels of Michael Cunningham.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (Dodd, Mead 1940)

This may well be Christie's most famous mystery, along with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and her stage drama, The Mousetrap. Ten people with no connection to each other are summoned to an uninhabited island. One by one they share their dark secrets, and one by one they die. It's a classic whodunit, virtually unsolvable, and a testament to Christie's greatness as a mystery writer. Still, it's a book I've never warmed to, because I don't care about any of the characters. What admiration I have is for the cleverness of the author in devising such an ingenious plot. I can't think of anything in the genre that equals it.

Savage Night by Jim Thompson (Orion 1953)

The storytelling here shows an economy of means that Joseph Hansen would be proud to claim, but this is the opposite of one of Hansen's scarily perfect whodunits. This is the story of a killer quietly unveiling the secrets of everyone around him in a slow, chilling striptease as he goes in for the kill. Baby-faced Carl Bigelow, a.k.a. Little Bigger, moves to a small town ostensibly to study. But he's well beyond student years, despite his boyish looks. He moves in with his prey, a government witness in an upcoming trial, and makes love to the man's wife while charming the rest of the household. Cool-headed and clear-eyed, this is the cat's side of the story, as he slowly and surely stalks and tortures the mouse.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo (Penguin Popular Classics 1964, French orig. published 1831)

Every time I'm in Paris I buy a book at WH Smith near the Tuileries. And every one turns out to be a winner. The first was Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted. Last year, it was Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao. This year, I picked up my first Hugo, an author I never expected to read. Apart from Shakespeare and a few dead poets, I seldom have patience for the slow storytelling that went on before the 20th century. Climbing the great cathedral last month, however, I read excerpts from Hugo's book posted along the walls and balustrades. There, I found a very compatible writing style, not at all antiquated.

Like all great writers, Hugo is a misanthrope ("Time is blind; man is stupid.") He's also a great comedian, and it comes across even in so generic a translation as the PPC. His plot is sweeping and his characters vivid. Quasimodo, the eponymous bell-ringer of the cathedral, falls for the beautiful gypsy, Esmeralda, and finds himself pitted against his saviour, the archdeacon Claude Frollo, a hermeticist who dabbles in alchemy.

The tale is a tragedy on par with Shakespeare. The writing gives a glimpse as to where Proust came from, with Hugo's long, winding sentences and frequent excursions that set the stage historically and dramatically. Two entire chapters are devoted to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, its history and style. Hugo's alchemy is his dazzling ability to find the commonalities in a unifying theory of art, architecture, and history, all interspersed with great satiric passages of social criticism and a profoundly moving story.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, trans. by Philip Gabriel (Knopf 2005)

With a title like this, you know you're in for quite a ride.  Happily, Murakami delivers.  Combining elements of the life of Beethoven, the Napoleonic Wars, and the American occupation of Japan after WWII, Kafka is about none of these things.  Rather, it begins with a 15-year-old runaway who renames himself Kafka after leaving his father, a cruel, celebrated sculptor.  Kafka's travels take him to a small-town library run by the lonely Miss Saeki, a woman he believes is his long-lost mother.  There, he teams up with an androgynous figure named Oshima.  Playing Virgil to Kafka's Dante, Oshima guides Kafka on his quest, while Miss Saeki takes on the role of Beatrice in the latter part of the novel.  A second plot, told in alternating chapters, concerns an elderly, mentally-challenged man named Nakata who speaks with cats and makes unusual objects rain from the sky.  On the road for the first time in his life, Nakata teams up with Hoshino, a young trucker who plays Sancho Panza to Nakata's Don Quixote.  Hoshino helps Nakata fulfil his mission to find a sacred stone.  Kafka, Miss Saeki and Nakata are each looking for a hole in time to help correct the past; the stone is the key.  Full of life lessons and comic profundities dropped as casually as leaves in a stream, it would take several readings to come to terms with all that this book contains, but it would be worth it.

Equal Affections by David Leavitt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1989)

This is Leavitt's second novel and third work of fiction, enviably published while he was still in his twenties. Few writers have skyrocketed so early in their careers and had such rocky times following their early success; this work is definitely from Leavitt's calmer waters period. Here, we're in territory made familiar in his debut story collection, Family Dancing: the quarrels and betrayals, and the close bonds that endure, despite everything. Danny and his older sister April are both gay. April is a successful lesbian folksinger and Danny eventually becomes a lawyer who moves to the suburbs to live with his banker lover, Walt. Their father, Nat, is a well-meaning philanderer while their mother, Louise, a colourful character, is chronically ill. The novel culminates with Louise's death.

Covering the late-70s through the mid-80s, for the most part, the book reads as a primer of early sexual identity and gender politics: coming out, bisexuality, feminism, lesbian parenting, and even basic Internet sex. I remember an early Leavitt essay in the New York Times (possibly called The Politics of Dancing.) It was my introduction to Leavitt, the gay boy wonder-writer. In it, I recognized myself as an out post-Stonewall gay man: defiant, openly sexual and impatient to change the world. Yet in that essay there was also something definitely not in my make-up: a deep identification with the suburbs, from which I had just escaped and on which I still blamed most of the problems of the world. This book still has that flirtation with the suburbs, for at the time of its publication Leavitt had yet to leave the US and steep himself in the more outward-looking viewpoint that produced some of his later brilliant works, including the moving and much-maligned While England Slept. This book does not reach those depths, yet it contains the seeds of what Leavitt was eventually to become, both as a writer and as a man.

One Last Waltz by Ethan Mordden (St Martin's Press 1986)

After 17 previous books, it would be difficult to justify calling this an early volume in Mordden's canon, but it was only his second work of fiction to be published, after the epoch-defining, I've A Feeling We're Not In Kansas Anymore.  It's an oft-overlooked book, so discovering it is a little like finding an early but nicely representative album by your favourite chanteuse that for some inscrutable reason is known only to you and three other people.  You get to gloat and feel smug over it, at least in private.  Coming as it did between the first two volumes of the immensely popular "Buddies" stories, Waltz was probably a disappointment to early readers hoping for more of Bud and his pals in gay Manhattan.  Certainly, there's a parallel to that scene in this book, but there's more, for this is an updated version of the family saga—three sons, only one gay—and a true, if slim, novel.  Questions of the niceties of fictional autobiography aside, this may be as much as Mordden has ever attempted to deal with his fractious family in one volume, positing his characters as larger-than-life heroes and villains, and making them Irish rather than the Italian/Norwegian background of his real life family.  In any case it's a welcome addition to the handful of fiction titles Mordden has produced (eight, by my reckoning), as compared to the numerous non-fiction titles (nearly thirty) that have swelled his bibliography since the precocious age of 22.

Lives Of The Circus Animals by Christopher Bram (William Morrow 2003)

I found this author-signed book in the basement of the Provincetown Library last month, and scooped it up along with an Ethan Mordden, a David Leavitt and an Agatha Christie. Circus Animals is a charming comedy of manners that would have amused Oscar Wilde. The title refers to a bunch of contemporary New Yorkers whose lives revolve around the theatre, and each other, far more than they realize. I've read only one other Bram book—Gossip—an enjoyable but serious novel, so this was a surprise. The characters include a self-flagellating playwright, a serious English actor doing Broadway musicals, a young would-be actor/stripper, a self-loathing Times critic, and various other zanies to round out the collection. Plenty of fun and loads of memorable lines.

Surviving James Dean by William Bast (Barricade Books 2006)

Dubbed "the person who knew him best" after Dean's death in 1955, Bast has penned two books on his relationship with his notorious and much-loved subject, some 50 years apart.  The first, he now claims, was a tribute to the legend, but lacking the stamp of truth.  The second, he says, contains the human side of the story.  There's not much new here except for what we all suspected and know now: Dean was gay, or at least bisexual, and Bast one of his lovers.  The immediacy of Bast's account, told with candour, brings Dean to life perhaps better than any of the available third-person accounts.  (Though both David Dalton's The Mutant King and Paul Alexander's Boulevard of Broken Dreams rank very high on my list.)  The emotional summing of what it has meant for Bast to live with this truth is what gives the book its greatest impact.  For, as he explains, it's been both a remarkable gift and an incredible burden to carry Dean's legacy for more than half a century.

America Anonymous: Eight Addicts In Search Of A Life by Benoit Denizet-Lewis (Simon and Schuster 2009)

A fascinating account by a New York Times writer as he follows eight addicts trying to get their lives and addictions under control, while hoping for a better understanding of his own disorder. Subjects range from an elderly alcoholic, a twenty-year-old sex addict, a middle-aged shoplifter, a compulsive overeater, a steroid abuser, and those with other forms of addiction. Denizet-Lewis spent three years chronicling the constant struggles and occasional victories of his subjects, while profiling various addiction treatments and histories. From the outside, it's a harrowing view of an addict's daily life. Up close, it offers glimpses many of us will recognize as symptomatic of everyday cravings and the dysfunctional behaviours lurking behind them.

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden (Viking Canada 2008)

In this, Boyden's second novel, the story telling comes at you like a bull moose on a rampage. The plot unfolds in two alternating first-person streams. In the first, a Cree bush pilot named Will Bird tells of his bullying by bikers and the eventual revenge he exacts at great cost. In the second, Will's niece Annie leaves Northern Ontario for Toronto, Montreal and New York in search of her estranged sister, only to return to find her uncle in a coma. It's a bit of a tour de force, though its author never loses touch with the intimate details of his characters' lives, an intimacy that often verges on violence and cruelty, something both modern cities and the harsh backwoods have in common.

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie (Dodd, Mead & Company 1938)

Another fun mystery from the Queen of Crime. It's interesting, given what we know of Christie's personal life, how objectively she treats such heady issues as emotional spousal abuse without dwelling on them at length. This book was written to refute the contention by her brother-in-law that Christie's murders were becoming quite bloodless, though by contemporary standards this one would hardly shock. The classic Christie trademarks are all here—quirky characters, an impossible crime, and a handful of tiny clues that mean nothing to anyone but the indefatigable Poirot. When a much-disliked father is murdered in his locked study, everyone seems guilty. It all comes down to who is lying about what, and why. In fact, at some point, everyone is lying for his or her own nefarious purposes. That's the fun of it. This particular plot contains a solution Christie would later repeat in a far more famous mystery on the boards.

Evening by Susan Minot (Knopf 1998)

This book and I did not get off to a good start. The film version, co-written by Michael Cunningham, was a disappointment. I was also wary of the title: too pointed, too openly seductive. And then the grammar—here was a writer who flagrantly abused commas (when she bothered to use them) and had no use at all for quotation marks around her dialogue. I think it presumptuous of a writer to expect a reader to work at unraveling every tangled skein of thought. It was enough to drive me batty. And yet—and yet. There are such exquisite passages here, fraught with emotion and honesty, as the dying 65-year-old Ann Grant recalls her life and her loves. After forty years and three failed marriages, she remains haunted by one brief, doomed affair that arrived unexpectedly, shattering and overshadowing everything she had before or would have after it. As it sometimes is with love, this story is worth the trouble.

The Keys to the Street by Ruth Rendell (Doubleday Canada 1996)

A young Londoner, Mary Jago, donates bone marrow to save the life of a man she doesn't know. Her live-in boyfriend, Alistair, mocks her for her generosity, until she finds the courage to dump him. Mary's subsequent flight propels her to Regent's Park, putting her in touch with a great variety of people, including some very colourful street beggars who are being preyed on by a serial killer. Mary's aim for a better life brings about unexpected results. Here, Rendell shows her ability to tease, entice and confuse the reader with her magician's hocus pocus. I haven't read enough of Rendell to know how this book compares with her other work, but the twists are impressive.

Three Junes by Julia Glass (Anchor Books 2003)

Three novellas delineate three separate months between 1989 and 1999, each filled with the reflections of people whose lives intertwine more than they realize. Paul, a middle-aged Scot, loses his wife to cancer. To recover from his loss, he travels to Greece where he has a brief flirtation with a 20-something American named Fern. Six years later, Paul dies. His gay son Fenno returns from New York for the funeral and the inevitable family reunion. Four more years pass. Fenno and Fern meet through a mutual ex-lover whose emotional detachment has tormented them both, though both remain unaware of their previous connection through Paul.

"Collies," the first of the novellas, is literary perfection. In Greece, the bereaved Paul contemplates his late wife's unfaithfulness and his own surprising interest in the young American artist who sketches his likeness. "Upright," Fenno's story, is situated in the middle of the book. It recounts Fenno's return to Scotland for his father's funeral not long after the death of his best friend to AIDS. Longer and less succinct, it shines with flashes of brilliance. It's the only story I know that makes me feel I could live in New York City—the day-to-day New York rather than the expansive, exhaustive tourist scale New York. "Boys," the final tale, would seem an add-on to this trio but for the brilliant choice of making the story about the now-pregnant, unmarried Fern, and her unstated connection with Fenno through his father.

This is a novel of delicate passions, tender insights and quiet family dramas, as full of longing and remorse as it is of joy. It is lovingly written, as though its author were "trespassing in the garden of a stranger," to borrow a line from the book. In this case, that garden is the past, and it's in the interchange of what passes between past and present that the book's magic lies.

Coventry by Helen Humphreys (Harper Perennial 2008)

Coventry is a careful, detailed work that speaks to its writer's roots as a poet. What is absent here are the usual personal interactions between characters that make up a novel, simply because none of the book's characters share a history, apart from a brief marriage early in the book, and an even briefer meeting between two of the characters in World War I that resumes after more than 26 years. Instead, this miniscule novel is filled with careful descriptions of a single horrific night in September 1940, when an entire city is bombed and everyone struggles to carve out new relationships while fighting to survive. It's a gentle, loving elegy by a writer whose every word is marked with care and concern for her subject.

Don Juan & Men edited by Caro Soles (MLR Press 2009)

"What if Don Juan were gay?" is the question posited by this unique collection. Unlike his real-life counterpart, Giacomo Casanova, Don Juan is a fictional character, Byron's epic poem Don Juan and Mozart's opera Don Giovanni (libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte) being among the most famous versions of the legend. Now editor Caro Soles presents us with a convincing collection of short fiction showing the Don's other face as gay seducer. Characterized by fine craftsmanship, as much a nod to editor Soles' qualities as a curator as to the talented writers she's selected, this collection gives a wonderfully varied look at what a gay Don Juan might be like: greedy and generous, sadistic and loving, aggressive and gentle, and most of all, irresistible.'

Everybody Loves You by Ethan Mordden (St Martin's Press 1988)

This was my fifth reading of the final volume of Mordden's proposed "Buddies" trilogy, which began in 1985 with I've A Feeing We're Not In Kansas Anymore and continued with Buddies in 1986. I say "proposed" trilogy, because of course it eventually became a tetralogy with Some Men Are Lookers in 1997, and finally a quintet with 2005's concluding volume, How's Your Romance?

The first three books are deservedly classics of gay literature, though their appeal should not be limited to a gay readership. This is quite simply great writing. What other writer can consistently make you laugh, cry and give you goose bumps all on the same page? None that I know of, save Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.

Apart from the Violet Quill writers, Mordden was the first writer of "GayLit" who made me feel that what I had suffered and experienced and learned and shared with others by being gay was real and, above all, that it mattered. His tales of friends and lovers and buddies in Gay Manhattan spoke to what I knew was true about gay life: that it was legitimate (possibly much more legitimate than the suffocating suburban environments many of us grew up in and ultimately escaped once we came out) and that it was as good as, if not better than, the facsimiles of life we had been offered in its place.

That is why the first three books in this series stand as testament to what it meant to be gay in the period Mordden writes of so eloquently. How odd it feels to turn to the fourth and fifth books in the series and find that Mordden seems to be purposefully and meanly taking back those earlier statements, as though to say that his dream of a gay utopia had failed him, so therefore his literary statements about it must be recalled because they are suspect at best and fraudulent at worst. It's a bit like Einstein saying that since he failed to prove the Theory of Relativity, no one else should be allowed to try to do the same or to take his writings and speculations about it seriously.

What Mordden seems to have failed to recognize is that sometimes a utopian experience is as much a product of its time as it is of the age of the person having the experience. I don't have the same good silly fun I did twenty years ago, and yes I find the current world depressingly shallow and often hopeless, and I also no longer feel at home in bars that once seemed to welcome me unconditionally, but I still remember the good times I had when I was able to overlook the shallowness and just enjoy life for what it was: an adventure I could share with my gay buddies—the ones I bonded with perhaps more fully than any other human beings before or since. That's what those first three books stand for, and why I continue to read them every few years—to remember and honour the memory of those past friends and times, even if I can't relive them.

JULY 2009
Still Life With June by Darren Greer (Cormorant 2003)

This book is a fun read and a heady look into the psyche of the post-90s generation. Playful, punchy and demanding of respect, it's a modern-day Catcher In The Rye. Its angry, despairing protagonist, Cameron Dodds, is a direct spiritual descendent of Holden Caulfield. A gay would-be writer and social reject, Cameron facilitates at an addiction treatment center where he gathers ideas for stories. When one of the inmates, Darrel Greene, hangs himself, Cameron impersonates him to gain visiting rights to Darrel's mentally-handicapped sister, June. Where the story takes him, and Cameron's corrosive insights into contemporary living, are wise, redemptive and memorable.

Runaway by Alice Munro (Alfred E Knopf 2004)

An Alice Munro short story collection is always full of hidden delights. Each story is strikingly unique, yet somehow Munro manages to bind them all together in some subtle, mysterious way that gives the collection a feeling of unity, despite a diversity of themes. In this, her eleventh collection, three of the eight stories share the same character, though at such different points in her life they could easily have been about three different characters. The effect is as though an entire lifetime had been telescoped and presented to the reader at three important crossroads in the character's life. The effect is spooky and startling.

Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton (Annik Press 2004)

This award-winning book is a hard-hitting look at Africa's poorest of the poor, people living in an AIDS-stricken shantytown where no one dares breathe the name of the plague stalking them. Chanda is the young teenager learning to be brave while attempting to save her family and her best friend. Wonderfully vivid scenes bring these characters to life across continents and cultural divides. This high-powered drama is the kind of excellence we've come to expect from one of Canada's best and most varied writers, who has turned his talents to this harrowing and moving tale for young adults.

JUNE 2009

Queeroes by Steven Bereznai (Jambor Publishing 2009)

There's something in the water and it's making super-heroes out of queer teens and their gal pals at Nuffim High. And either you'll be offended that Steven Bereznai has parodied and queered your favourite current urban fantasy series, or you'll love it. Or possibly, like me, you won't notice, being mostly unaware of it. I was on chapter four, blithely reading along, before I caught on: "Oh—right: 'Save the gay—save the cheerleader.'" I haven't a geek-chic gene in my body, but I'm okay with it.

Troy and Chad and Gibbie and Mandy are all recognizable high school types: jocks and queer boys and geeks and cool Asian girly-girls. And they all come down with some pretty strange powers once they ingest the Etienne water. Of course, there are the other types who also come down with strange powers, too: the demento types like Liza and Devon, who you know are up to no good. It's more than just the usual high school rivalry when things get going. It's fun and dark and it's also a lesson in morality, while offering strong insights into the burgeoning emotions of teenagers who get in touch with more than just their usual hormones.

Had books like this been around when I was growing up queer, it might have made things a lot less difficult in high school and perhaps all those years later on. It might even have made it easier for a few gay boys to cheerlead for their high school football teams. And had there been some very smartly written books like this one back then, who knows what it might have done for queer self-esteem. But there weren't. Nonetheless, there are some now, so let's hope they make it into the hands of the people most likely to benefit from and enjoy them: queer teens looking for some very cool role models.

A Sharp Intake of Breath by John Miller (Dundurn 2006)

Born with a harelip and a cleft palate, Toshy Wolfsham's life hasn't been easy. What it has been is colourful. Growing up Jewish in Toronto in the 1930's, Toshy is surrounded by the politics of passion: Marxism, Communism, Anarchism. His sisters Lil and Bessie straddle both sides of the political mainstream: Lil befriends Red Emma Goldman, while Bessie works for the idle rich, rousing great enmity in the family. Politics, however, are merely the backdrop for this story of courage and integrity that begins in the Depression and ends decades later near the end of Toshy's life, a life that includes a stretch in prison for theft from Bessie's employers—a theft many felt was not undeserved. All is not what it seems, however, and the book holds a number of surprises, including a vivid recounting of the aged Toshy's journey to France in search of Goldman's former home, partly as a tribute to his sister. Perhaps best of all is Miller's deep insight into human nature and his uncanny ability to inhabit each of his widely varying characters fully and impressively.

The Flower Beneath The Foot by Ronald Firbank (Penguin 2000, orig. 1923)

Like Nathaniel West, Ronald Firbank makes his characters inhabit a cruel and arbitrary universe. Unlike West's characters, however, sadness and self-delusion are more likely to be their fate. Firbank's world is a pastiche of whimsy and doggerel, and Firbank seems intent on proving the meaninglessness and arbitrariness of existence, much like Samuel Beckett or Jean Genet, but without the profound moral allusions or observations. Not so much a story as illusory, sensual meandering, The Flower Beneath The Skin is a collage of characters and scenes that culminates with a revelation on the part of one of its many characters, Laura de Nazianzi, of the hopelessness of her love for a young prince named Yousef. Allan Hollinghurst calls Firbank's works a 'cosmopolitan fantasy.' I would call them something more: defiantly pointless and trivial in the extreme, but artistically so. These are moments of meaninglessness caught and deftly pinned to a board, momentary trifles soon forgotten, fireflies on an evening's stroll.

The Endless Knot by Gail Bowen (McClelland & Stewart 2006)

This, the tenth book in Bowen's famed Joanne Kilbourn series, catches up with Joanne and her new amour, Zachary Shreve, a charismatic handicapped lawyer who is both respected and feared. Zack has taken on a sensational case to defend a former folk-singer accused of attempting to murder a journalist who wrote a book that threatened to tear his family apart. The journalist, Kathryn Morrissey, is also feared but far less respected, as she remorselessly pins her subjects to the pages of her books like insects in a specimen box. Bowen deftly weaves her main plot and several subplots into a rich tapestry of everyday life and extraordinary occurrences, which somehow miraculously all culminate with the trial and its explosive aftermath. Bowen's characters are always people we know, or would like to know, for the most part. It's a marvel to watch her seemingly effortless joining of the book's wonderfully varied strands, each of which is illustrative of her theme: the endless knot of love that binds parents and children.

MAY 2009
Coureurs de Bois by Bruce MacDonald (Cormorant Books 2007)

On seeing a smiling face crossing the Steam Whistle Brewery parking lot with a case of beer in hand, I said to myself, "There goes one happy fellow."  Five minutes later, the happy fellow popped into the green room where I sat waiting to read for an audience of brewery tourists.  Lucky me.  Grabbing a beer from the cooler, Bruce MacDonald sat and introduced himself as the previous reader.  Lucky him.

"Butterflies?" he asked, giving me a shrewd look.

"No," I said.  "Death In Key West," thinking he'd mistaken the title of my book.

"No, I meant do you get butterflies in your stomach before you read?" he replied.

"No, not usually," I said, not realizing I was smack dab in the middle of what could easily have passed for a scene in Bruce's debut novel, Coureurs de Bois.

Bruce nodded carefully.  He explained how he'd had to read over a whirling child whose parents seemed to think it perfectly natural for their son to be spinning up a storm in front of the makeshift stage.  "Sorry," he shrugged.  "I don't mean to make you nervous."

Too late.  But like Bruce, I, too, survived the whirling dervish, the adolescents munching Pringles and the mobs waiting thirstily for their brewery tour to begin.  One to remember.

A few days later, I began reading Bruce's novel: Cobb, aka Randall Seymour, is a First Nations Indian.  Recently released from prison, Cobb dreams he is about to be hanged.  At the last minute, however, he's rescued by Crow.  Crow has a mission for him.  About the same time, a naïve young Ottawa man named William Tobe has a vision while fasting.  The vision sends him to Toronto, rather than to law school as his family had planned.

Both men end up in Parkdale, Toronto's gritty west end that mirrors the upscale, mostly-white east end enclave known as "The Beach" like an evil twin.  In Parkdale, crooked cops, crack whores, pimps, and practitioners of magic exist comfortably alongside diner waiters, bank managers, convenience store owners, and residents of the nearby mental health centre.  In Parkdale, the insane are misunderstood geniuses and miracles happen amid the dirt and debris of everyday living.

It's here that Will and Cobb find their destinies as twenty-first century equivalents of the renegade coureurs de bois, running not furs but cigarettes.  The visionary Seymour, who "sees more", joins forces with William Tobe and his "will to become."  Cobb, of course, understands Will's vision, but can't tell him what it means.  As with any vision quest, he can only guide Will and help him to find out for himself, as Will eventually does, while making Cobb rich along the way.

Coureurs de Bois is a book of highly subversive humour.  It carries depth charges with each subtle, laid-back observation about our social system and why and how we mistreat our social cast-offs.  It's satire of a very high order, with the most unlikely mismatching of characters since Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude.  I read it with that rare sense of joy at discovering something refreshingly unique and occasionally startling.

One night, a few days after the brewery reading, I dreamed Bruce came to my house and left a frozen hamburger patty in my freezer.  Then he went away again without speaking.  I woke thinking of Cob and Will and their quests.  "Hmmm," I thought.  "This book has strong medicine."  If it's a vision quest, however, I have yet to learn what it means.  Maybe Bruce will know.  Though of course he won't be allowed to tell me.

Boy Crazy edited by Richard LaBonté (Cleis Press 2009)

Having a new anthology show up in my mailbox is a reminder I have one less publication ahead of me that my work will appear in.  Sad, but it's how I think.  On the bright side, I'm always thrilled when the anthologies are smart looking, like the two volumes I was accepted in recently.  Boy Crazy, edited by the prolific Canadian Richard Labonté, is the first.  And it's undoubtedly smart looking.  I'm happy to be included with established masters like Michael Rowe and James Magruder, as well as talented newcomers like Rob Wolfsham and Natty Soltesz.  The book's subtitle, "Coming Out Erotica," might seem a bit misleading.  For the most part, these stories aren't about sex, but about self-discovery that comes through sexual awakening.  Most are just downright good writing, first and last.  All are filled with the unabashed ardour and joy of first time sexual intimacy.  Dale Chase's Army Brat has a charming insouciance, while FA Pollard's Game Boyz wins big for hottest and most natural sex scene, and Wolfsham's nerd-boy voice in The Viking is irresistible.  Others, like Rowe's August, Magruder's Treasure Map, Soltesz's Paperboys and Thomas Fuch's Larry and His Father, will take you places you won't expect to go and won't forget either—the trick of accomplished writing.

Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell (Seal Books 2004)

Mix Cellini has triskaidekaphobia, or fear of the number 13. Mix isn't the luckiest of individuals to begin with, but his fascination with real-life English serial killer John Christie gets him in a lot more trouble than he bargains for. Rendell weaves modern day characters in and around historical facts, echoing Christie's murdering spree in the '40s and '50s. My fascination with this book lies in having once lived in Ladbroke Grove right around the corner from where Christie killed. When I lived there in the mid-80s, the tales of a local killer had taken on an existence out of all proportion to actual fact. I heard stories about a man who had killed his wife and propped her body in the bay window to fool people into thinking she was still alive. In real life, Christie wrote letters under his wife's name after she became his final victim, hoping to stave off inquiries from curious relatives.

Someone You Know by Gary Zebrun (Alyson 2004)

Zebrun's debut novel is a chilling work about a bi-coastal serial killer that might make you reconsider serial monogamy. It actually made me feel physically ill in places, though that's the sort of endorsement not everyone will find endearing. Newspaper columnist Daniel Caruso has his own little fatal attraction that makes Glenn Close's Alex Forrest look more like Dear Abby. This book will lay a very cool hand on your shoulder—read it if you dare. On a warmer note, I'm happy to report that Zebrun himself is delightful and witty and bears no resemblance to his characters, having shared a panel with him recently at the 2009 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans where we discussed, among other contentious topics, whether or not mystery writers have a "formula." Shakespeare certainly had one, so I don't mind saying I do too.

you got to burn to shine by John Giorno, with an introduction by William S Burroughs (High Risk Books 1994)

You want to like John Giorno because his work is so passionately felt, so passionately lived, if a little lost in the beat consciousness of revised Zen Buddhism, and also because William S. Burroughs told us we should, told us we should, told us we should. But it's hard, you know, and it's hard, it's hard, and if you don't like the style of this review then you probably won't like Giorno, won't like Giorno, like Giorno and his reductionist poetic fantasies, in which he writes lines like, "I want to be filthy and anonymous, scum and slime." In Shine, Giorno comes across as a raging volcano bearing witness to some almost unspeakable truth, but in actuality it's a very suspect and unreliable sort of truth. When Giorno describes an unsafe sexual encounter with the young, hiv-positive Keith Haring—who did not disclose his health concerns—as an act of "genuine love" motivated by "pure intentions," you can't help wanting to shake him. "John, John, John," you want to say. "Can you not see Haring was risking passing on the virus in what might more readily be described as an act of pure selfish recklessness or callous revenge against the world than any desire to ‘radiate enough compassion to fill the world'?" But no, Giorno is blind to such thoughts. Does that make him a saint, as Burroughs suggests? Then again, who was William Burroughs but some guy who shot his wife in Mexico because he couldn't get off drugs, and later achieved some sort of immortality because he wrote a famous book because he couldn't get off drugs, and then was further immortalized in some movie about a bunch of people who couldn't get off drugs … but is that really enough to canonize these guys?

APRIL 2009
The Hamlet Murders (A Zhong Fong Mystery) by David Rotenberg (McArthur and Company 2004)

Every once in a while I pick up a mystery that really zings—not just with story, but with character and clever writing. This is one of them. Rotenberg takes us to the heart of Shanghai, China's most populated city. Detective Zhong is called on to investigate the apparent suicide of his wife's former lover, Canadian theatre director Geoffrey Hyland. But of course it's not a suicide and there are many suspects, including most of the cast of Hamlet, which Hyland has come to China to direct. The description of Shanghai and its residents is priceless and unsettling. Rotenberg has an astute grasp of the political and social realities of modern China, and it's probably not by chance the book often sounds like a warning knell. With his theatre background, Rotenberg delivers some keen insight into the vicissitudes of human nature that would impress Shakespeare.

Blood Hunt by Ian Rankin writing as Jack Harvey (Orion Books 1994)

You know that a book written by a one-time punk musician is going to have street cred, though what else it may contain is anybody's guess. In this case, intelligence, suspense, and some fun political theorizing. Scotsman Reeve is a former SAS officer who trains weekend warriors in the art of tracking and overpowering imaginary enemies. He doesn't know how handy those talents will come in until he receives a call saying his journalist brother has been found dead in San Diego. The web Reeve unravels to find his brother's murderers is long and sordid, and would do any conspiracy theorist proud. For the most part, it's amusing to watch Reeve at work in this tale of physical and intellectual warfare. Rankin has a big reputation among the thriller set, and it's deserved, though the downside is that the writing doesn't shine. Words have no importance here—one can just as easily be substituted for another with no detriment to the book. The story's the thing, and it moves and moves, though if it stopped moving, it would very likely collapse. There's a lot of sound and fury signifying little, apart from some brief philosophising on the nature of power.

An acquaintance and I once discussed our respective literary tastes. His litmus test was The English Patient. He wouldn't credit the taste of anyone who admired that book. Ironically, it was also my test. I couldn't credit the taste of anyone who didn't understand what makes it great. It's not snobbishness; it's about values. In TEP, words are magic. Or rather, how they're used is the magic, since few words have currency on their own these days. If you have a tin ear for words, the writing won't entice you. "What about The Great Gatsby?" he asked, not knowing he'd touched on my ne plus ultra. "It's pretty boring," he said. To him it was simply a story about a love triangle. Or rather, two love triangles that bisect, with a narrator standing outside each squaring the hypotenuse. Seen in that way it would be pretty boring, but if you have an ear for words, it's magic. While Rankin's story rocks, his ear for words is the equivalent of punk music. It's about raw, primary power, not subtlety and certainly not magic.

The Violet Quill Reader, Edited by David Bergman (St. Martin's Press 1994)

The 20th Century was dotted with literary groups (Bloomsbury, Stein's Paris Circle, the Harlem Renaissance, etc.) Many of these influenced the course of literary history; all were dominated by gays and lesbians. (Yes, all—check the rosters, if you don't believe me.) The Violet Quill met only eight times between 1980-81, yet it was the first official group created with the express aim of writing to and for a gay readership. The seven men who comprised the VQ—Felice Picano, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, George Whitmore, Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro and Michael Grumley—all met in a personal capacity before throwing in their lot as a literary "movement."

Published 13 years after the official "disbanding" of the group, The Violet Quill Reader contains work by all seven writers, including a formerly unpublished story by Cox, who produced little and died young (as did Grumley, Ferro and Whitmore), as well as letters and diary entries detailing the group's short-lived formal activities. By all accounts, the group shared a basic political outlook (gay liberation theology), but not an aesthetic one. Their work does not constitute a school of any sort, apart from that of being written by and for gays in what is now loosely called "the post-Stonewall era."

Bergman has carefully shaped the book to reveal the evolution of the writers before, during and after the group (only Holleran, whose famed Dancer From The Dance was among the first best-selling pieces of Gaylit, seems to have come to the group with his style fully-formed), as well as to frame their work in an historic context. It opens with White's wonderful firsthand account of the Stonewall Riots, and some early letters of Holleran and Ferro not long after the two met at a Writers' Workshop in 1965. It ends with Holleran's tribute to Ferro, following his death to aids in 1989.

While the work no longer seems revolutionary, in its day much of it was revelatory. Under the group's influence, individual members began producing far more notable work and were considered among the most successful gay authors of their generation. And while much of it covers familiar territory (coming out, facing discrimination, living with aids), a good deal of it remains powerful: the excerpt from Whitmore's Nebraska is gripping, as is the one from Ferro's last work, From Life Drawing. There are some memorable short pieces as well, like White's intriguing An Oracle, and the droll Whitmore short story, Getting Rid of Robert, a "biographical" work that threatened to tear the VQ apart.

While the amount and the quality of work produced by individual members differs greatly, the group's collective influence on GayLit has been huge, and its value perhaps only now beginning to be recognized. The remaining members, White, Holleran and Picano, are to be honoured by the Lambda Literary Foundation with the 2009 Pioneer Award next month. And though with hindsight the VQ may seem to have been a movement whose time had come, we owe much to those who marched before it became entirely fashionable to do so.


Troubled: a memoir in poems and fragments by RM Vaughan (Coach House Press 2008)

I first came across RM Vaughan's poetry in the mid-90s, when I was editing the Church-Wellesley Review. I was struck immediately by his unique voice and knew we would be hearing more from him. Most recently that voice has given rise to a stunning work based on Vaughan's doomed and illicit affair with his psychiatrist in the late-1990s. In poetry, journal excerpts, letters and legal documents, he details his infatuation with his therapist, followed by the affair and its aftermath, including Vaughan's breakdown over a betrayal by the man who he felt knew him best. It's harrowing and brilliant. Had this book been written by a woman, award committees would have fallen over themselves to give it first place anything. Instead, because it's the work of a self-described gay "fattie", it has been appallingly and predictably overlooked by nearly everyone. Welcome to the Can-Lit Ghetto.

A Jest Of God by Margaret Laurence (McClelland and Stewart 1966) 0771047010

Although on the surface it might read like a slight novel, A Jest Of God has heft because of its slow, masterful execution. The tale of Rachel Cameron, a chronically repressed "spinster" in small town Manitoba, is nothing more nor less than the carefully detailed disintegration of a personality operating on guilt and fear. Rachel lives with her dying mother above a funeral parlour once owned by her alcoholic, reclusive father. She's still a virgin at 30, until she meets boyhood school chum Nick Kazlik, who manages to get through her shell, then tosses her aside when she responds to his advances. Rachel's interior monologues and constant self-reproach are pitched to annoy, but you still want her to win and so you stick with her, despite the odds and the oddities in her personality. If this were a painting, it would be Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, a portrait so bleak it hurts to look at it.

MARCH 2009
Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems by Keith Garebian (Signature Editions 2008)

Keith Garebian's Blue is a haunting elegy to an artist whose films left an indelible mark on queer consciousness, as much because of Jarman's brashness at a time when we were all battening down the hatches and doing damage control in our own lives, both public and private, because of the onslaught of aids, as well as because of Jarman's uniquely personal vision as a filmmaker.

The poems reverberate with an intimate and cumulative knowledge of the artist's work seen in hindsight. At times, they achieve a visionary quality that stems from a critical perception of Jarman's oeuvre, coupled with Garebian's personal imagining of the man behind the work. In this way, the poems serve as both biography and critical exegesis of the films. Edward II: A Queer History, for instance, is as much a snapshot of Jarman's film as of his imagining of the misbegotten monarch who bears its title, while the multi-part Caravaggio serves as a series of vignettes illuminating both the historical artist and his modern-day artist-biographer.

While not lengthy, Blue is a full work. The book is cleverly divided into a biographical Prologue, a critical Corpus, and a final section, Blue, that serves as a meditation on the dying Jarman and his final work, Blue, a non-imagistic "film" that provided a backdrop for Jarman's ponderings on life, death and art.

These works contain both vibrant imagery and richly imagined drama, and are a pleasure to read. They should be—they were written by a masterly word-artist and inventor who might, had the two met, have mesmerized Jarman with his own creativity.

The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James (WW Norton 1966, orig. 1898)

Reading this book reminded me of the dull, dreary assignments given by unimaginative high school teachers to English students. The long-winded prose, while grammatically correct, has nothing of the elegance and beauty of Proust's equally long, if not longer, sentence structures. You want to dust these sentences, not read them. And yet, by the end of the book, I'd become fascinated by this tale told by an obsessive governess of her two young wards, Miles and Flora, whom she suspects of being in collusion with the malevolent ghosts of two former servants.

What fascinated me even more is the more than a century of heated criticism about this brief tale that, wittingly or not, dissects the nature of human perception as much as the story at hand. That highly prescient neurasthenic, Virginia Woolf, seemed to have sensed the cataclysmic divide in humanity that occurred little more than a decade after the story's publication, when she proclaimed that, "In or about December, 1910, human character changed…". She was right, of course. It was in this year that Russian painter Wassily Kandinksy painted what is believed to be the first true and purposely abstract work of art, entitled appropriately, "First Abstraction." With this one work, Kandinsky had an effect on human consciousness that was as great as, or possibly greater than, the understanding that dawned when art progressed from stick drawings to drawings with a multi-linear perspective. With this painting, Kandinsky made visual the connecting of human consciousness with our subconscious, what had once been solely the provenance of occultists. Others saw it in Freudian terms, of course, though it amounted to the same thing. It was this very subject—the subconscious—that Freud was absorbed in exploring.

Thus, criticism of this seminal text is divided into people who see it as a ghost story, pure and simple (the non-Freudians) and those who see it as an in-depth analysis of the psyche of a very disturbed young woman with sexual overtones (the Freudians.) Few, if any, have commented on the inherent lesbian undertones in the actions of the confused Miss Kenton, but perhaps the vast majority of Freudians are, like the story's governess, too polite to mention such things for want of precipitating their own psychological implosion.

Earth And High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham (Cormorant 2008, orig. 1944)

It's impossible to read a book like this and separate it from its political background. Graham's wartime novel about the daughter of a wealthy Montreal Anglophone family who falls in love with a middle-class Jew from Northern Ontario was written to illustrate her personal conviction that Canada was not doing enough to help the Jews of Europe in their hour of need. She'd experienced life in pre-war Europe, learning first-hand what it was like for ethnic minorities there while attending school in Switzerland in the 1930s. She'd written frankly about those experiences for Saturday Night Magazine and fought her own battles against Canadian hypocrisy toward a people euphemistically called "the refugees." As Norman Ravvin says in his introduction to the Cormorant re-release, this book is not part of Holocaust Literature, yet it can be considered an early contribution to "writing about the Jewish experience in Canada." It can also be seen as an example of early feminist writing in Canada, for the story is as much about Erica Drake's fight to love a Jewish man as it is about her emerging identity consciousness and her struggle against then-prevailing attitudes about a woman's "role" in life and love.

In many ways, this was Canada's first bestseller, with sales topping more than a million and a half copies, as well as winning the Governor General's Award and having its film rights purchased by Samuel Goldwyn (for Katherine Hepburn, though the film was never made.) In a recent article, Cormorant publisher Marc Côté compared Graham's writing to that of John Steinbeck. The comparison is apt. While it may not be high literature, it is high family drama, richly imagined. It speaks about our past, as Canadians, at a time when costly mistakes were made far too easily because of the misguided thinking of far too few. As a member of an invisible minority, I frequently found Graham's treatment of her theme riveting. Would that there were more books like this to speak of what it really means to live outside accepted convention, whether by choice or by birth, and pay too high a price for doing so.

Gym Dandy by Storm Grant (MLR Press 2009)

Victor is a sweetly goofy personal trainer at a downtown Toronto gym. He's the kind of guy who says "metaphysical" instead of "metaphoric" and files Rachmaninoff next to Roch Voisine in his CD collection, and all without irony. He's a jock and he's content. Then along comes the new client, Doug, a hetero diamond-in-the-rough who starts off with abs of flab, yet still manages to rock Victor's world (which admittedly consists largely of the gym and the gay ghetto.) Still, there is more to this mixed-up attraction than meets the eye. The reader knows it and Victor senses it, even while Doug denies denies denies. Of course, there's trouble a-brewing (isn't there always?) for the ill-fated pair in this sweetly smart romance. Every time it seems like things might come to a head, something sideswipes the budding romance between them. And just when you despair it might never happen, a surprise ending that you won't see coming (and if you did, you peeked!) turns everyone's world completely around. The characters are sexy and the writing is as tight as a pair of hot buns. And, for added measure, you just might pick up some good training tips to get your bawdy in shape for Pride.

Clandestine by James Ellroy (Perennial 1982)

Humphrey Bogart's spirit stalks Ellroy's world, though admittedly, Russell Crowe in LA Confidential is a better actor. Having enjoyed that film, I thought I'd make the foray into Ellroy's novels. I'd heard he was a good writer, and was expecting a fine literary remake of a big cheesy genre. What I found, however, was a compendium of Hollywood clichés so bad they make you groan. The story begins in fine noire style with a sexy murder investigation fronted by Fred Underhill, a young cop with ambition and a penchant for tough guy antics in '50s LA. Thinking he's snagged a womanising serial killer, Fred brings his suspicions to Dudley Smith, an off-the-wall, brogue-spouting Irishman who encourages Fred's antics. Together they take things a step too far, botching the case. Having resigned from the force in disgrace by the end of the first half, Underhill is more driven than ever to solve the murder. That's the second half, and where it leads is to a morass of sexual psychobabble that would shame even the most amateur writer.

Given that the era wasn't the best time to be gay, the attitude towards homosexual characters on the part of the other characters is understandable. But also given that the book was written and published in the 1980s would seem to be reason enough to subvert those silly old misconceptions, because by then the world no longer believed that all gay men were evil, sadistic, drug-addicted, child-molesting murderers. But in Ellroy's world of junkies and dames and queer bars, they are precisely that, and no more. Besides being offensive, it's also psychologically unconvincing and plain old dumb.

Funeral Rites by Jean Genet (Grove Press, trans. by Frechtman, 1969)

This, Genet's last novel, is my favourite of the five. So much so that I adapted it into a play that so far has never been staged. The story is brilliant, sadistic and horrific, and the writing luminous, finding its voice in the richly resonant theatre of World War II, as the narrator mourns the death of his young lover at the hands of French traitors while Paris is being liberated from the Germans. With its inverted Catholicism and decadent symbolism, it's as much a kick in the teeth of Nazism as of religion and conventional mores. And while it might seem hard for even a practiced rebel and flouter of convention to appear more outrageous than the war's atrocities, Genet is equal to the task, embodying and desecrating even Hitler in the course of his narrative, which climaxes with a cannibalistic ritual in which the flesh of his dead lover serves as a host-like corpus amoris.

Genet's books were among the first gay material available to me as a teenager (purchased at the Mic Mac Mall in Dartmouth, no less) and the timing was perfect. In my state of closeted teenage hormonal overdrive, nothing in his work shocked me or seemed outrageous, as great writing—which to me refutes any moral arguments against it—supports it. This is a work to savour. His prose is as emotionally effervescent as a Mahler symphony, while at the same time as densely satisfying and profoundly complex as anything by Schoenberg.

An English Gentleman by Sky Gilbert (Cormorant Books 2005)

Perhaps best known as the artist who has done more then anyone else to put Queer Theatre on the map in English Canada, Gilbert is also a poet and novelist. Gentleman is his fourth novel and the most divergent in tone from his other works. It's a lyrical hybrid work, narrated in the first person by two contemporary gay New Yorkers, but based around a series of letters between Peter Pan creator JM Barrie and the adopted son who helped inspire that work. The letters suggest a sexual relationship between Barrie and the boy, culminating in the suicide of the latter at age 21. Gilbert skillfully sets up the letters to parallel the two relationships, as the mentor figure in each sets out to mold his protege both morally and culturally, while hiding behind masks of aesthetics and achievement, and each resulting in its own disastrous outcome.

Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall (Cormorant Books 2008)

It's always fun to find a first novel that has zest and punch and a great command of style. Zoe Whittall's first book presages what could be a long and joyous career as a novelist. (She's already an accomplished poet.) Though it started off as a series of connected short stories, Bottle Rocket Hearts is now a fully evolved novel about an overly idealistic young lesbian named Eve living in Montreal in the heady days before the last referendum in 1995. Eve's experiences with her best friend, Seven, an hiv-positive gay man, and the radical fem-lez Della, as well as the portrait of '90s Montreal, make for a touching, funny and engaging story.

NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro (Vintage 2005)

Too much advance billing is never a good thing. I was highly impressed by Ishiguro's celebrated Remains of the Day and was open to reading anything by him, so grabbed this much-lauded book at a store in the Atlanta airport. I found it slow and largely undramatic, written in a highly controlled, if somewhat predictable and unexciting narrative voice. Ishiguro's story, about a small group of children with no past who grow to adulthood in what seems to be a private boarding school, is unutterably sad and haunting. It's a dystopian fantasy taking place not in the future, but the recent past, and seems to come so close to mirroring current scientific realities that it's almost shocking to contemplate. I couldn't help feeling, however, that the first person narrative by a young woman named Kathy H., who cares for her former-schoolmates in their final days, seems not to be directed at anyone or for any particular purpose, giving it a pointless, meandering feel despite the book's careful unfolding. And despite its superb moral tone and disquieting story, it was not an enjoyable read.

The Mission Song by John Le Carré (Viking Canada 2006)

I'm a fairly recent fan of Le Carré's, not having acquired a taste for thrillers and mysteries until I began writing them four years ago. While Le Carré is anything but a formulaic writer, his books are fairly consistent—smartly plotted, impeccably written, and well researched. This, his twentieth novel, is no exception, though I found a certain psychological credibility lacking on the part of his main character, a half-Irish-half-Congolese translator named Bruno. Through his work for British Intelligence, Bruno becomes involved with a secret cabal planning a coup in Africa. Somehow, despite his intelligence, he misses all the danger signs along the way. Have you never watched "MI5" or read a Le Carré novel? I kept wanting to ask, as his folly grew. Alas for Bruno, it seems he had not.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate/Harper Collins 2004)

In 1944, a young Jewish boy with a parrot on his shoulder stops to pee on some railway tracks outside an old house in the South Downs of England. The boy and his parrot are saved from frying on the conductor rail only by swift action on the part of the equally old man within. The mystery of how a German-Jew got to England in the middle of the war, and the true nature of the sequences of numbers the chatty parrot spouts in German, lie at the heart of one of Chabon's best books to date. Although never named, we soon deduce that the truculent 89-year-old is the mighty Sherlock Holmes himself, returning for one last bit of fun. This is a bon-bon on par with Curtains, Agatha Christie's final fling with Hercule Poirot. Perfectly calibrated and with every note set to pitch perfection, it's a stunning piece of writing—a tour de force, to use that old-fashioned phrase that has been flung willy-nilly after many an undeserving work—and with an ending of remarkable whimsy reflecting nothing more or less than the absurdity of life.

The Net And The Sword by Douglas LePan (Chatto & Windus 1953)

The First World War produced a good number of memorable poets (Brooke, Sassoon, Owen, and McRae, to name but a few who wrote in English), while the Second World War did not. Canadian Douglas LePan is an exception, and a notable one. It's hard to say why his poetry is not better known, for it's marked by exquisite grace, intelligence and outright beauty. Perhaps it's due to the fact that LePan was a rather ordinary looking Canadian, while many of the earlier poets were exceptional looking young Englishmen who became poster boys in their time. Or perhaps it was simply because they all died during the war, while LePan lived to a ripe old 85. There's more glory in dying young. Whatever the reason, this Governor-General's Award winning volume, along with LePan's last memorable work, the narrative poem Dying In The Dark, deserves to be far better known and taught for their literary and social values. During our eight-year friendship, Doug seldom spoke of the war, preferring to talk instead about literature and sex (and was equally candid about both.) These poems tell why—it was an experience one would not want to relive, except perhaps to put it down on paper to exercise one's ghosts or else pass along the collective wisdom of those who have seen battle first-hand: no one would willingly go there. The stark visuals of these poems are at odds with their Romantic language. Many lines combine the power of Shakespeare with the beauty of Shelley and the morbidity of Keats. The symbolism of gladiators fighting with nets or swords blossoms in LePan's hand—the hand of a master. Poems like ‘Tuscan Villa' or ‘An Incident' are small, exquisite masterpieces. History should be kinder to its literary cast-offs. Or perhaps Canada should.

The Burning Plain by Michael Nava (G.P. Putnam's Sons 1997)

Nava is one of the direct literary descendants of Joseph Hansen, writing stories that are intelligent, literate and predominantly gay. While his books lack Hansen's succinctness, what I enjoy most about them are his characters—even the bad ones are vividly written. Nava's Mexican-American protagonist, Henry Rios, like Hansen's Dave Brandstetter, is a man defined by his integrity, though fraught with human weakness and a questionable taste in men. The setting for this volume is Hollywood, and Rios's former-partner has just died. After dating a hustler who reminds him of his ex, and who soon turns up dead himself, Rios finds himself first defending his reputation and then later battling powerful forces in Hollywood that suggest shadowy real-life parallels. ‘Does evil exist?' Nava asks, and eventually answers, by the story's end. And yes, there's a reason I named one of my characters in P-Town after him.

The Love Of The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribners 1941)

There are many reasons not to review an unfinished book, and very few reasons to review one. It's like excavating a ruined city: you know what you'll find is a mere suggestion of the intended whole and, in the case of a book, a ‘whole' that existed solely in its creator's mind. How can we judge that? Perhaps the most difficult task in examining a book like this lies in separating the myth of the writer from his final work. We approach wanting to find it great, if only to corroborate our view of Fitzgerald as a genius, if ultimately a flawed and failed one. Read More...

The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of by Joseph Hansen (Henry Holt and Company 1978)

My respect for Hansen deepens with every volume of his Dave Brandstetter series. Brandstetter wasn't the first openly gay protagonist in a mystery series, but in many ways he's still the best. This, his fourth volume, deals with the murder of a publicly admired but privately hated chief of police whose record as a defender of public decency is marred by his behind-the-scenes vigilantism. Every Brandstetter tale is a watercolour of the California scene, painted to perfection, but with something malevolent hidden at its heart. By the book's end, the watercolour has become a deftly interlocking puzzle, wherein every character has an overlapping motive for having wanted the victim dead, but it's not till the last piece is inserted that we realize who actually had the guts to go through with it.

Of course, Hansen had a personal motive for creating the series which, in his words, was to "right some wrongs" when it came to public perception of homosexuals. But unlike many gay writers who followed, he let the message be secondary to the story, thereby ensuring the integrity of the work. That Brandstetter is also an individual of rare integrity is beside the point. Hansen was telling us what most of us know: gays are no different from anyone else when it comes to portioning out vices and virtues. No pity necessary, no applause required. If we want to be respected for what we are, he seems to be saying, it will have to be because we aren't different, rather than because we are.


The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge (Fontana 1974)

Bainbridge started off as an actor and it shows in her writing. The scenes are taut with drama—drama of the unspoken, the unexpressed, and the repressed. These themes ripple malevolently all through this tale of thwarted love and sexuality, as two spinster aunts raise their niece, 17-year-old Rita, in Liverpool during World War II, shielding her from life until an American GI comes along to rock their world.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (McClelland and Stewart/New Canadian Library 1967)

When I last read this book I was a teenager. I was entranced by the story of the rebellious 90-year-old Hagar Shipley, who defies her son and daughter-in-law's attempts to move her into a retirement home.  At the time, I considered it the best Canadian novel I'd read. Strange how it hasn't held up for me, especially considering my recent re-reading of Laurence's A Bird In The House.  This time around I found Hagar's antics childish and annoying, and the book slow and occasionally stilted.  This time around, I was on Hagar's son's side.

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon (Faber and Faber 1928)

Part one of an autobiographical trilogy, the book starts off as a sort of Remembrance of Things Past for the horsy set.  The story of British orphan George Sherston's growing to manhood and developing into an amateur athlete along the way, Sassoon published it anonymously so not to tarnish his reputation as a literary man, though the book has had a lasting popularity.

Critics may argue, but it frequently reads like a fictional account of Sassoon's same-sex love affairs (platonic in the book, but often otherwise in real life.)  Coming not long after the Oscar Wilde scandal, it would have been unthinkable to have been forthright about such things at the time.  (Witness EM Forster's decision not to publish Maurice in his lifetime—and alas that he lived so long.)  Sherston's sublimated longing will be apparent mostly to the initiated, but there's a level of emotional explicitness that shines through in the poetry (Sassoon's and others', for he's fond of refashioning famous lines throughout the text.)  For instance, on being asked to stay the night at the home of a huntmaster he's had a crush on since he was 11, the now-25-year-old Sherston shares only with his horse his great joy at what he call his ‘sublunary advancement.'  Scholars will note that this unusual word's most famous usage is to be found in John Donne's A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, where the poet speaks of ‘Dull sublunary lovers' love'.  To disguise his love by echoing a metaphysical poet would have been the ultimate transmutation of such feelings, and Sassoon could not have been unaware of the full implications of the word.

Gay as well as being a father after a brief marriage to a woman, half-Anglo and half-Indian Jew, world famous as an English war poet but bearing the Christian name of a mythical German hero, Sassoon must surely rank as one of the most minority-strapped individuals of all time.  That his earliest ambitions were simply to fit in with the English sporting classes was likely a result of wanting to mask his multifaceted identity in a land where xenophobia and homophobia had long held sway.  That he would become one of the most celebrated poets of his day may ironically have been little more than an accident of a talent so obvious it ultimately could not disguise itself, no matter what its subject.  
Only in the last 40 pages do the memoirs take a serious turn, as Sherston finds himself on the front lines of battle in France in 1915, as did Sassoon.  Here the writing comes on full-force in one extraordinary passage after another, as Sassoon recounts the effects of war on those fighting it.  Sherston's off-hand comments on the politics and social values of his times sound astonishingly contemporary, while the story's devastating intimacy has an almost paralysing effect on the reader.  Some books leave you with vivid images, others with a notion of character and story arc, but very few leave you wishing you had known the author.  For me, this is one of the latter.

A Bird In The House by Margaret Laurence (McClelland and Stewart 1974)

To be honest, I'd forgot how powerful Laurence's writing is, having assumed over the years that my fond memories of her work were simply the result of adolescent naïveté and nationalist enthusiasm. How wrong I was! The last time I read this book of stories about a young girl's coming of age in Depression-era Manitoba, I was 20, and thought I knew everything about good writing. I didn't then and don't now, but I'm glad to be able to reread it and discover that my appreciation of Laurence was not in the least misplaced. These pieces are so powerful they can take your breath away, leaving you scorched by their honesty and unrelenting pity for the terrible things life has in store for us all.

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh (Canongate Books 2002)

If Sylvia Plath had lived, she would write like Louise Welsh. For my money, there's no one better writing today. This is my third reading of the book this year, and each time it yields fresh rewards. For me, The Cutting Room is up there with The Great Gatsby, The Hours and The Unvanquished. It's a superb book, seldom equalled. As a wordsmith and craftsman, Welsh is on par with the likes of Plath, William Trevor and Ethan Mordden. As a story plotter she's the equal of any, as evidenced by this tale of the hard-living gay auctioneer Rilke, who stumbles onto the clues to a murder in a handful of sadistic photographs at an estate sale. While it's hard to imagine a whodunit (thriller, cosy, whatever) with such staying power, this is one. The thrill stays even when the sleuthing takes a back seat to literary interest on subsequent readings. The genius is so crackling hot you can warm your hands to it.

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie (Pan Books, orig. Bodley Head 1925)

Not among her better books, this one comes from the mid-20s when all was frivolous and gay and Christie seems not to have taken her career overly seriously. (And why would she? She couldn't have known yet she'd one day be crowned "Queen of Crime.") It's full of the sort of outrageous coincidences that mar many crime novels, and its characters are more annoying than amusing. Christie filches then-current politics in the Balkans, including the deaths of King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia some 22 years earlier, and garbles country names while taking a number of xenophobic potshots at all things foreign, which seems to have been a blood sport back then. The setting and characters would be reinvented for a better book, The Seven Dials Mystery, four years later.

All In The Dances—A Brief Life of George Balanchine by Terry Teachout (Harcourt 2004)

Although this book is a biography of Russian émigré choreographer George Balanchine, it's also a biography of modern ballet, beginning with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and extending beyond Jerome Robbins and the legendary dances based on the work of modern compositional giants like Webern, Hindemith and Stravinsky. Author Teachout warns us at the outset that there was little interesting about Balanchine's life, quoting him as saying it was all in the dances. He was right, though Balanchine's life was colourful enough, having lived through the Russian Revolution before taking his troupe across Europe and eventually to acclaim in the US, where he founded the New York City Ballet. I'm not a balletomane and have seen only one Balanchine work, the famed Nutcracker Suite, a staple of New York Christmastime dance fare. It was not my cup of tea, though the friend I watched it with claimed seeing it was a thirty-year dream come true. She was enchanted; I was bored. Nostalgia waves the rules. So I might agree with Balanchine himself, who believed ballets should not be revived past their day. They are, he said, like butterflies: ‘A breath, a memory, then gone." I might, if not for Teachout's effervescent descriptions of his dances, which makes me wish I'd seen them when Balanchine was alive, but also makes me want to see them now.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (Penguin ed. 1995, orig. 1903)

I always approach classics with caution. They bear the weight of legends, though the reason for it isn't always clear. Sometimes it has to do with how startling a work was in its day—the impact it had at the time—and less with how strikingly it reads now.  Sometimes the style takes considerable adjusting to before you ‘get it.' This slim volume presents few, if any, of the problems associated with books written in other eras. Its theme, the evil that lurks beneath a civilized skin, is as relevant now as when Conrad created his narrator Marlow, who experiences darkness at the heart of Africa in his quest to find the mysterious Mr. Kurtz. Conrad's style is compelling, highly subjective and yet largely without sentiment, while its psychology is modern and the narrative deeply layered. In other words, it's a great book. Words have weight here. You don't want to skim passages for factual intent at the sake of meaning. The build-up to Marlow's long-awaited meeting with Kurtz is at times chilling and Conrad's use of the exploration of Africa as a metaphor for the human psyche is stunningly resonant. The final few pages, in which Marlow brings Kurtz's letters home to his bereaved fiancée, show an influence that would come to fruition nearly a quarter of a century later in The Great Gatsby (specifically, in Gatsby's eulogy by his father to Nick Carraway, as well as Nick's description of Daisy's voice.) Conrad, and this book in particular, also presaged contemporary writers like J M Coetzee, as well as the much-celebrated recreation of the story in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

Something Still To Find by Douglas LePan (McClelland and Stewart 1982)

These poems mark a turning point, an invisible border between LePan's old life and his new one.  Between family life, politics and teaching—all bounded by an award-winning literary career—and coming out, which he did late in life.  His metaphor, exploring the Canadian wilderness, is an apt one in the context of exploring his sexuality.  Poems like The Double and Hideout make far more sense when seen in that context, and even more so when you see such delicately sensual pieces like Song and Aubade transplanted in his next volume, the exquisite and far less oblique Far Voyages, his first full volume of gay love poems.  Read More...

For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner 1940)

I've never been a Hemingway fan.  His ‘greatness' evades me.  Whenever I feel a little optimistic about him (which isn't often), I think about reading For Whom The Bell Tolls, his much-lauded mid-career novel about an American who fights fascism in Spain.  It's his magnum opus, I tell myself.  Plus it has that beautiful title.  And of course it was the basis for the movie that launched Ingrid Bergman's hair.  Yet every time I attempt it I come away thinking less of Hemingway.  In truth, this is one of the most boring books ever written.  (Dare I say it's too ‘earnest'?)  It's stodgy and repetitive, and told largely through dialogue.  The formal translation of Spanish speech makes it cramped and unnatural.  I don't know why earlier generations held it up as a marvel of American letters.  (Then again, I don't know why earlier generations did a lot of things they did.)  But then I recall some of Hemingway's earliest writing—those wonderful short stories (the collection entitled The Snows of Kilimanjaro in particular, less so In Our Time), and especially the lovely, limpid The Sun Also Rises.  OK, I think—the guy could write.  But he was no Fitzgerald!

The other ‘great' Hemingway book I've always found problematic is The Old Man and the Sea.  For some reason, I always assumed that I was the problem, not the book.  The first two times I read it (I like to get to the bottom of things), it seemed to me (again) one of the most boring books ever.  The third (and the last time I will read it), it hit me.  I was in Cuba on Cayo Guillermo, near where it was written.  I was waiting for a date with a lifeguard who eventually stood me up.  I sat on that beach for more than hour, finishing the book, and suddenly it made sense.  The book was slow, the beach was slow, Cuba was slow.  It was all in the pacing.  Nothing moves there—you wait and wait and wait and nothing happens.  At least I had cracked the secret to reading The Old Man and the Sea.

A Room Full Of Balloons by Frederick Ward (Tundra 1981)

While researching black history in Nova Scotia, Ward came across the story of Samuel Whit, an eleven-year-old black boy who refused to read Little Black Sambo aloud in class. As punishment, Whit was sent to a school for the developmentally handicapped and locked in a closet each day. Ward's version of the story is Through The Looking Glass all the way to Dante's Inferno, orchestrated by Theolonius Monk. Ward's style has been dubbed 'literary jazz', and rightly so. It's full of the riffs and rhythms of spontaneous invention only a master can pull off. Sadly, Ward may go down in history as one of Canada's most neglected writers along with Elizabeth Smart. Illustrated with a series of paintings by artist Jim Shirley, the book is a quiet masterpiece.

Made For You by Geneva St. James (Alpha World Press 2008)

This charming novel about dysfunctional lesbian relationships happens to be one of the funniest books I've read in a long time. Julie Bell runs Maid-For-You housecleaning services, but dreams of opening a sex shop. She's not fabulous by a long shot, but she is happy with her life until she gets dumped by the beautiful Adrienne. To make things worse, Adrienne leaves Julie for her adversary, the pompous, would-be artiste Meagan. Naturally, Julie is having a hard time getting over the loss as much as the insult to her pride. The scenes float impressionistically along as Julie does her best (and worst) to shake the couple's arriviste status in the lesbian scene, hoping against hope that Adrienne will recover her senses and return. Julie's companions include her best friend Sarah, a suicidal cat, blind dates, and an over-the-top PC gurly-gurl named d.dee, who ride with her all the way to a surprising conclusion that is genuinely moving and totally, totally right.

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje (McClelland and Stewart 2007)

This is Ondaatje's sixth novel, and his second since the success of The English Patient. It's also his most oblique. Anna and Claire are sisters (though Claire is adopted.) They live on a farm with their father and an enigmatic young man named Coop. All's well until the girls' father learns Coop is having an affair with Anna. His violent reaction destroys the family. Anna and Coop disappear, but not together. Much of the novel is recollected by Anna years afterwards. Now living in France, she is researching a long forgotten poet. Coop, meanwhile, has become a professional gambler. After a brutal run-in with a crime syndicate, Claire finds Coop and begins to nurse him back to health. Most of the remaining narrative traces the life of the poet, Lucien Segura, whom Anna has been researching.

I once took a writing class with Linda Spalding, Ondaatje's partner. Discussing his work, she said, "Ondaatje says plot is the least important part of a novel." (She always called him ‘Ondaatje' in class, but ‘Michael' when speaking of him one-on-one.) That may be an over-simplification of what he meant, but it is particularly relevant in this case. To call this a plot-less novel would not be strictly accurate on one level, but entirely true on another. The three main stories in this book intersect on a tangential level far more than in any concrete way. Simple things—a piece of glass that blinds a writer, a shard of glass Anna uses to stop her father from killing Coop—resonate in ephemeral ways, drawing and reflecting meaning. Following a traditional plot is probably the last thing Ondaatje considered.

Like WG Sebald, who used similar techniques, Ondaatje allows his stories to echo one another through the fine details of their settings as much as through a character's actions and observations. Where Anna's father tries to destroy her lover, Lucien observes in wonderment as his married daughter carries on an affair with a man he disapproves of. Ondaatje places that moment of discovery in a god-like setting, making the writer watch the lovers from above (which is what writers do), before removing himself so as not to remain omniscient. The key to the book lies in its title: division. Ondaatje is talking about the things that separate us as human beings, and the less tangible ones that bind. While the act of writing literally separates the writer from the subject, experiencing anything means joining the action rather than standing back and observing it.

There are moments of beautiful intimacy in this book, the kind Ondaatje is famous for, and characters that echo the broken characters in his other books. Still, Divisadero will probably frustrate anyone looking for another English Patient.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (Riverhead Books 2007)

Brilliant, acerbic and filled with the love of revenge that writers are famous for: revenge for being black, being poor, being Dominican, and revenge for being smarter than the monsters who pervert the course of the world, both politically and personally. (Would that every dictator great and small could achieve such an excoriating epitaph as the DR's Trujillo does in this book.) It's also filled with love—just plain love. Oscar Wao is a fatboy nerd who wants to be JRR Tolkien and marry J-Lo (or the next nearest best thing.) His tale is probably far more common than we imagine, because he's exactly the kind of person who gets noticed last, and always too late. Not this time, however, for this book plants him dead centre in the spotlight, where he belongs. A wondrous book, not brief, with an irreverence you can't buy these days. It's the real thing, the genuine article: inspired, comic, brilliant and moving. It's also grateful. It pisses in the face of the world and then says ‘Thank you.' Think Zadie Smith before she got all awards-conscious, Gabriel García-Marquez in his finest moments, Richard Pryor in some of his zaniest, and you have Oscar Wao's life as told by Dominican émigré Díaz. Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

London Noir, edited by Cathi Unsworth (Akashic Books 2006)

This is the tenth in the acclaimed series of short fiction collections focusing on the dark side of famous cities. London has earned its reputation as a noir town, having been home to both Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. As Unsworth reminds the reader in her boastful introduction, "Every kind of crime has been committed here." And while this collection seldom reaches farther back in time than the '70s, the London of Joe Strummer is not very different from that of Arthur Conan Doyle. Tellingly, it's imbued with the piss and vinegar of rock'n'roll, and particularly with nostalgia for the punk era. That the first three stories are about drugs is off-putting, as though there were nothing more dangerous or inspiring to write about, but thankfully there are no vampire stories in the whole of the book. Ken Bruen's Loaded takes us to the mean streets of Brixton in the eyes of a drug dealer who makes one mistake. It's followed by Barry Adamson's Maida Hell, a skillful invoking of the spirit of Maida Hill like an inverted A Child's Christmas in Wales. Of the seventeen writers, only three are women, but they offer some of the strongest stories: Sylvie Simmons's I Hate His Fingers is also one of the most original, while Unsworth has a good poke at sex and passion with her droll Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, and Joolz Denby's Sic Transit Gloria Mundi gives a sly wink at the so-called greatness that is London. John Williams's New Rose offers a picture of what some of the former-punk rockers might look like today—and it ain't pretty—while Dan Bennett's portrait of a troubled young man in Park Rites has all the makings of a 21st century Ripper. A good noir collection.

Troublemaker—a Dave Brandstetter Mystery by Joseph Hansen (Henry Holt and Company 1975)

By this, the third of the Dave Brandstetter mysteries, we finally have some semblance of contemporary gay life in the open. It's 1975 and finally there are bars (and the attendant police harassment.) And of course there are boy beauty contests. But these contests are a cut above the ordinary: the beauties are actually required to have cultural knowledge, and so come under the tutelage of older gay men who groom them. Can you imagine asking a current Mr. Buns Toronto to recite something by Eliot or hum a theme from La fanciulla del West? Not likely! Perhaps it was a more idealized gay world back then. Sic transit, etc… The events here revolve around a gay bar called The Hang Ten (as in surfing, not the other.) When the bar's owner is killed and a young hustler is discovered holding the gun, it seems like a simple open and shut case, till trusty insurance claims investigator Dave Brandstetter gets involved.

Dalai Lama—Man, Monk, Mystic by Mayank Chhaya (Doubleday 2007)

Although this is an ‘authorized biography', it reads more like a political treatise on the state of occupied Tibet. No doubt this was part of the Dalai Lama's reasoning behind authorizing the book as he heads into his later years after nearly a half century of exile from his homeland—more fuel for a fire threatened with extinction on his death. The few solid glimpses of Tibet's spiritual head are welcome, but they're no more revealing than much of the other material by and about him. If His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama comes across as god-like, it's more through his lack of everyday human foibles than anything else. There's little that's magic here, but then the writer's introduction seems almost an apology for his interest in a religion whose main credo is reincarnation. That's expected from a leftist humanist viewpoint that looks to the human intellect as the highest creative force in the universe—a vast mistake, as our current world state shows. If more people cared about the Dalai Lama's teaching and less about China-occupied Tibet, we might solve a good deal more of our sorry problems.

The William Powell and Myrna Loy Murder Case by George Baxt (St. Martin's Press 1996)

This is the 11th of 13 books in Baxt's series of fictional murder cases in which real life celebrities help solve crimes. Metro stars Myrna Loy and William Powell, fresh from their box-office success in The Thin Man, team up between scripts to unravel a murder plot involving a Hollywood madame who provides sexual playmates for celebrities, but then threatens to reveal her clients' identities. Both the mystery and comedic materials are stretched pretty thin in this one, and neither Loy nor Powell carry enough weight as celebrities today to render them irresistible. For me, Baxt's books are hit or miss. And while this one's a far cry from his nearly impenetrable Noel Coward Murder Case, it's nowhere near the truly hilarious case featuring a raunchy, outspoken Tallulah Bankhead.

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (Bantam 1939)

Virtually ignored during his lifetime, West became a cult figure after his early death in 1940. It's hard to say where his reputation lies now, though he still shows up on Best 100 Novels lists. F. Scott Fitzgerald considered himself a fan. Locust, the last of four short novels, is considered West's most mature work. Think Fitzgerald writing Barton Fink or the Coen Brothers directing The Last Tycoon and you'll come close to understanding West's vision. It has a surprisingly contemporary feel, with a truly cynical wink at life in Hollywood that didn't come into vogue for decades (back then it was all about covering up scandals, not using them for literary fodder.) There's no moral core to West's world, hardly even a center at all, populated as it is by hucksters and star-struck dreamers who amount to little more than a plague of locusts. At first glance it seems a far cry from Fitzgerald's moral and romantic, if ultimately tragic, universe, but it's actually its inverse. If you took the characters from the party scenes in The Great Gatsby and made the doomed, trashy Myrtle Wilson a romantic focus (with Nick Carraway and George Wilson as rival-protagonists), you'd have something like this bleakly comic novel by Nathanael West.

Death Claims—a Dave Brandstetter Mystery by Joseph Hansen (Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1973)

Apart from the fact that Hansen's early Brandstetter novels are impeccably plotted, it's refreshing to see a gay man portrayed so accurately and casually long before Gay became associated with anything like Pride. To read this book, you might think gay couples were nothing startling in the early-70s. Hansen is just as sensitive in his portrayals of visible minorities (making them both realistic and visible.) His outlook seems to have more in common with contemporary standards than whatever ‘moral' view was in operation in the decade that produced the Moral Majority and Anita Bryant. Smart, inventive and well-paced, Hansen's books clearly stand the test of time.

Shadow Play by John Milne (Penguin 1987)

This was one of the last great Cold War novels in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR, when a whole genre of thriller seemed like it would fall by the wayside. With its heavy noir atmosphere, London street cred, and intimate glimpses into the machinations of the British spy network, Shadow Play has its roots in books like LeCarré's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Milne is a master of deceit, unlike his unlikely protagonist, the one-footed private eye Jimmy Jenner, who can scarcely figure out the motives of those around him, beginning with long-time friend and fellow former-police officer, Peter Moody. The story starts when Jenner shows up at Moody's apartment and discovers what looks like a murder—only he smells a set-up. The discovery triggers a whole range of betrayals and counter-betrayals. Clever and cunning.

Fadeout—a Dave Brandstetter Mystery by Joseph Hansen (Alyson Books 1970)

Cool, clean and elegant, this early gay mystery reads like a chamber piece. There's not an ounce of fat to trim on Hansen's first Brandstetter volume, a marvel of execution with a thoroughly admirable protagonist and some remarkable erotic tension, despite a total lack of explicit sex. The forensic evidence seems a bit dated by current CSI standards, and Brandstetter's leaps of logic are at times almost too good, but the book's architecture is flawless and its prose crisp and memorable. Where could you find lines these days like, ‘You just know Keats died young. Beauty is not truth and truth is not beauty,' except perhaps in the mouth of a drag queen?

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion (FSG Classics 1970)

This quiet scream of nihilistic despair reads like a cross between Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and just about anything by Jack Kerouac. The story of Hollywood starlet Maria Wyeth's breakdown finds its film equivalent in Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle, where scenes defy rational order and begin and end suddenly, their accumulated effect producing the desired result. Wyeth's story comes across as though moments in a life had come unstuck and been played out randomly. Nearly 40 years after its publication, the effect is still startling at times, though the ending (a choice between two nihilisms) feels somewhat contrived, perhaps because a full portrait of Maria's alter ego BZ just isn't there in the book's lean, spare landscape.

A Casualty of War edited by Peter Burton (Arcadia 2008)

A Casualty of War is the delightful new collection of gay short fiction by renowned English editor Peter Burton. Despite its title, the book's themes are multifarious and range from hardcore wartime tales to infectious comedy. It opens with a Kafkaesque piece, When the Time Comes, by writer-director Neil Bartlett, and continues with a heart-warming tale, Troubled, about nascent love in the punk era, by novelist/critic Sebastian Beaumont. It includes work by three Canadians, including me, Patrick Roscoe and Ian Young. Roscoe's Mariposa, Butterfly reads like a Spanish fairy tale while Young's The Buggery Club is a real nostalgia piece for anyone out and living in London in the '80s. Thankfully, the collection also contains works by distinguished writers from an earlier era, including Atti Innominabili by Michael Davidson, a bittersweet look at adolescent sexuality, previously published to a limited readership in the '60s. Among my favourites (they're all favourites, really) are Stephen Saylor's Kinder, Gentler, with its emotionally-charged ending, Cliff James's The Violence of the Gardener, with its superb noire twists, Richard Zimler's perceptive take on gay vs. racial tensions, A Dry Past, and the truly wonderful comic piece, Awkward Relations by Richard Haylock, the English novelist who died recently at 87. This latter, a sort of Cage aux folles set in '80s Morocco, alone is worth the price of the volume.

The Hill Bachelors by William Trevor (Vintage Canada 2001)

Trevor has been called the ‘greatest living writer in English'—a pretty grand statement. Much of his reputation stems from his exquisitely chiseled short stories, as notable for their startling beauty as their limned perfection. The Hill Bachelors may not be the greatest of his story collections—that crown would surely be claimed by After Rain, whose every work is a masterpiece of subtlety and understatement. It is, however, a good book to know Trevor by, and contains what may be the greatest of his short works, The Virgin's Gift, as evanescent and beautiful as anything he has done, with an ending so subtle I almost missed it and had to read twice to catch the twist. This is not to diminish the other pieces in the collection, each varied and distinctive. Like every Trevor story, they unfold a world in miniature, revealing the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary, and delivering the pleasures of unexpected revelation.

JULY 2008
No Beautiful Shore by Beverley Stone (Cormorant Books)

God, I love a woman who can swear! And Beverley Stone is right up there with the best of them. This beautiful, disturbing book is one of the most honest tales of contemporary Newfoundland I've come across. Part-Trailer Park Boys and part-Thelma and Louise, it's an account of teenagers Bride Marsh and Wanda Stuckless's attempt to leave out-port Newfoundland for life in Toronto, a challenge much bigger than it sounds. Bride is the sexy one who gets hit on by men, while Wanda is the entrepreneurial tomboy who sells dope to make her passage ‘away.' Both prove hindrances to their goal. A sharp blend of the comic and tragic, Stone's story is filled with wisdom, insight and some very deft writing.

The Unvanquished by William Faulkner (Vintage Books 1938)

This is a perfect little gem of a book, as concise and brilliantly conceived as The Great Gatsby. The action takes off like a rocket following the end of the American civil war. At the book's center are Bayard Sartoris, son of a confederate hero, and the slave Ringo, in a pairing as memorable as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Bayard's narration is one of the most successful and appealing first-person voices in literature, as he gives a trenchant portrait of a society in decline. Gone are Faulkner's long-winded philosophical treatises, while his humour, drama and moral ambiguities are sharpened with moving and powerful results. I only wonder why the book's last word is "horses" rather than "courage."

Times Queer by Mykola Dementiuk (Synergy Press 2008)

Mykola Dementiuk is a twenty-first century Rimbaud, sketching a world sick with a surfeit of sex and desire and characters confused by the nature of pleasure.  Glimpsed through the eyes of its youthful protagonist Richard Kozlovsky, Times Queer offers twenty-one brief portraits illuminating the darker side of a world-famous landmark.

Vienna Dolorosa by Mykola Dementiuk (Synergy Press 2007)

On Saturday, March 12, 1938, Hitler's army marched into Vienna, looting, destroying and murdering while the city's inhabitants fled or stood by in shock hoping the cataclysm wouldn't touch them.  At the novel's heart is Frau Friska, a transvestite hotel manager, and Petya, a young boy who lives off his earnings as a prostitute in the hotel's back rooms.  Ruthless, cruel and unredemptive, Vienna Dolorosa is a frightening portrait of a single day in which the glory that was Vienna vanished overnight.  This, Dementiuk seems to say, is what the end looks like when it comes unawares.  Dolorosa combines the seductive sleekness of Cabaret with the heartbreaking realism of Bent.  A powerful, imaginative work by a compelling writer.

Mr. Phillips by John Lanchester (McClelland & Stewart 2000)

I was a bit surprised by this book.  Lanchester's first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is the funniest book I've ever read.  For starters, it's a novel disguised as a cookbook.  Yet this, his second book, I found only passably amusing.  Much of the humour centers on sex and sexual repression and to my mind the British just aren't at their best on the subject.  (To be honest, only a gay man can really do it justice.  And yes, Margaret Cho qualifies as a gay man as far as I'm concerned.)  In Mr. Phillips, an accountant accustomed to living life as a series of certainties and probabilities encounters a day so bizarre it loses all meaning for him.  After a series of random, improbable occurrences upsets Mr. Phillips's routine, he begins to reassess his entire life.  The set-up is fine and the novel isn't a total snore, just oddly lacking in laughs.  But that's what we get for having expectations, innit?

JUNE 2008
The Ice House by Minette Walters (Pan Books 1992)

I'd heard conflicting reports about Walters's books—both raves and pans. Recently my father gave me a copy of Disordered Minds and I found it a genuine page-turner, though the story came straight from the headlines of English tabloids. I've since delved into her early books and find them far less convincing psychologically. Much of it is geared to a TV level of writing, and both the characters and stories are largely unbelievable. Add The Ice House to that list. I wondered then, why I still enjoy Agatha Christie. Apart from some diabolically clever plotting, the prose is horrible (no small statement considering she's the best selling author in English, surpassing even Shakespeare.) I think the secret lies with Christie's characters: she makes them believable in a way many contemporary mystery writers don't, ratcheting up the suspense with extraordinary plot turns instead. "Character is destiny." So proclaimed 6th century BCE Greek philosopher Heraclitus. All the special effects and sensational plot twisting in the world doesn't make that any less true in a murder mystery.

Murder Is Academic by Christine Poulson (St. Martin's Minotaur 2002)

What's interesting about this book is it's an attempt to bring a naturalist take to what often feels like a moribund, formulaic and increasingly unconvincing genre. More an intellectual puzzle than a thriller, the suspense quotient is low in Poulson's take on murder in academia, but the psychology is convincing (except for one stunner where the victim of an attempted murder is left alone in a hospital bed during a fire drill.) What if, the author seems to say, a murder is committed but the people involved don't recognize it as such? This is what it might just look like.

Nine Stories by JD Salinger (Little, Brown and Company 1953)

I don't recall when I first read Salinger's short stories, but it was around three decades ago. At the time I was a fan of The Catcher in the Rye, but it's the novellas I love nowthey're perfection of a kind. Salinger once considered himself Fitzgerald's successor, and that's evident here in the way he shows off stylistically as well as in the adolescent humour typical of Fitzgerald's early writing. The pieces in this collection, once called ‘brilliant' by critics, now seem showy and contrived: A Perfect Day for Bananafish and even For Esmé—with Love and Squalor, which I thought I would love again on second sight, but didn't. The story that struck me as the best of the lot is Teddy, about a 10-year-old mystic who predicts his own death. It still gives me goosebumps. As ghoulish as it may sound, I'm looking forward to seeing what waits to be published after Salinger's death.

Landing by Emma Donoghue (Harcourt 2007)

Landing is a humorous and moving literary novel about a chance meeting between a young Canadian woman and a middle-aged Irish woman on a plane over the Atlantic. The encounter changes both their lives as Jude and Silé's long-distance relationship grows, against all expectations, leaving them to straddle not only the Atlantic but also the pitfalls of culture shock and commitment issues as the worldly Silé tries to come to terms with the younger Jude's life in rural Canada.

Other Men's Sons by Michael Rowe (Cormorant 2007)

Other Men's Sons is the 2008 Randy Shilts Award-winning book of creative non-fiction by Torontonian Michael Rowe. The writing is intelligent and witty and the subjects varied—from the title essay about Michael and his partner's attending the wedding of their "adopted" straight son (whom they met when he was 19), through an essay about a young woman who grew up in a supportive gay environment and had to learn to contend with other people's homophobia, to the story of Pvt. Barry Winchell, murdered by a fellow soldier when it was discovered Winchell was dating a transsexual. Each of these pieces is insightful and beautifully written but, perhaps best of all, the book is uplifting despite its sometimes tragic themes.


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