Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Vienna Dolorosa by Mykola Dementiuk

Reviewed by Victor Banis
A stunning and exemplary work of historical fiction, set in Vienna, Austria, taking place during a single day—March 12, 1938, the day Hitler "invades" Austria—in the Hotel Redl, a brothel where young boys dressed as girls entertain a discreet clientele. The hotel's proprietress, transvestite Friska Bielinska, watches the violence building on the streets of the city and tries valiantly to save guests and workers from the Nazi storm breaking around them.

Some books are easy to read. You snuggle up with them for a few hours of pleasure, a divertissement; perhaps a thrill or two from the plot, maybe a phrase here or there to savor. For most of us, this is mostly what we read.

Other books are not so easy. They are the ones whose prose, whose authors, challenge us. They dwell on serious subjects, or sometimes, subjects that are difficult to face. They make us think. They make us face, within ourselves, the reality of the human condition; perhaps for better; more often, for worse. I personally find that certain themes, certain subjects, are difficult for me to read. That is not meant judgmentally. The good writer is, or should be, a student of human behavior. To wrinkle up one's nose at very much of it is to distance yourself from your rightful task. You cannot write about human beings if you do not understand them, and you cannot understand them if you cannot see them honestly.

Still, I am inclined to avoid violence and there are certain types of sexual behavior—sadism, masochism, scatology among them—that turn me off on a personal level. Man's inhumanity to man depresses me. I do not generally read William Burroughs, as an example; he is just not to my tastes. But, this does not mitigate my opinion of him as a writer, a writer whom many consider to be brilliant.

Vienna Dolorosa was, then, not an easy book for me to read, dealing as it does with this one day of violence. But, to review a book, as I see it, is to provide a potential reader, who may not at all share my own prejudices, with some intelligent basis upon which to make his decision, whether to read, or not to read. If I write reviews only of books that reflect my bias, I am producing only a certain kind of vanity writing, and avail the potential reader naught.

I did not savor this book on a personal level. It troubled me greatly, in fact. It puts me, I fear, too closely in touch with my own inner brutality, which is to say, our common human thread of brutality, the seed of which exists in each of us, acknowledged or not. It can be painful to be forced to recognize it. Far easier to shy away from it. Like Burroughs, Mykola Dementiuk holds the mirror insistently before our faces, forces us to look into the darkest corners of our souls. He takes no blame if the image we see is not a rosy one.

This is a book that reminds me, indeed, very much of Burroughs' work, and the writing is certainly brilliant. How could I not admire a writer who captures the reality of the Nazi brutality with such astonishing brevity and horrible clarity: "The time of indecisive slapping was over; the millennium of clenched fists had arrived." Who could make the point in fewer words? What writer could not admire this snippet of bitter humor: "When told about the Nazi book-burning…in Berlin, he was to say, When they start burning the writers, call me; only idiots pay attention to writers."So, no, this is not an easy book. It is not for the reader seeking an hour or two of gay fluff; nor the prissy; nor the timid. It is not a pretty book. It is, in fact, an ugly one. It is often over the top. One senses here and there the author striving to shock, to dismay, and he does. Horrible would not be too strong a word. Life, the author insists, can be horrible. People can be horrible.But they can be beautiful, too, and for all of his shock tactics, the author finds too here and there little redeeming gems of beauty, of courage and goodness, even of love, buried in this momentary dung heap of history.

This is in fact a beautiful novel, beautifully realized, a novel for those interested in history—not just history's glorious triumphs, but its sometimes putrid underbelly as well. It is for those interested in the human condition, for it is in just such chapters of history that one sees humankind stripped of pretense, exposed, raw nerve endings and all. And, certainly, it is a novel for those interested in literature more than mere fiction.

In the best of all literary worlds, this would have been published by one of the major publishing houses, hailed by the leading critics, the author assuming a place in the front ranks of authordom. Stephen Spielberg would be filming it at this very moment.

One can only be grateful for the courage and insight of this small press and its publisher in bringing this extraordinary novel to fruition, for what will sadly almost certainly prove to be a small—but a discerning—audience.

Vienna Dolorosa by Mykola Dementiuk

Reviewed by P.A. Brown

This book is not for the faint at heart. It was very hard to read and only the complex characters made me read through to the bitter unsavory end. Taking place in Vienna on the day the Nazis occupy the city this book deals with many ugly characters, dealing with an ugly world, and not very well.

There are no likable characters in this book, the closest thing to a sympathetic person is the hotel proprietor, a transvestite who runs a hidden brothel in her hotel that caters to homosexuals. And in Nazi Germany and Austria homosexuality carries some serious repercussions, including death. In fact one of the characters meets what has to be one of the grisliest deaths I think I've ever read in a fiction book.

Years ago I developed a fascination with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. I slogged through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It was like a really bad train wreck, I had to stare. I wanted to find out what made this kind of insanity possible. Not only what drove Hitler in his madness, but what allowed the average German to go along with it and release their own monster. This book does no more to answer that than any other book I've read. I've since come to the conclusion that it's just something dark in all humans. Same thing occurs with serial killers and child abusers. These days I write about my own dark characters and try to capture the essence of those people.

Mykola Dementiuk does a creditable job of peeling away the layers of these monsters and showing their normalcy. If you have a weak stomach, do not read this book. If you sicken easily don't read this book. But if you want to delve into the dark heart of people who have chosen a path that nearly led the world to the brink and resulted in the death of millions of people whose only crime was being 'different' then by all means read Vienna Dolorasa. You won't easily forget it.

Since My Last Confession by Scott Pomfret

Reviewed by Alan Chin

When a devout Catholic, porn-writing, sodomite lawyer fights to protect the Massachusetts same-sex marriage laws, he finds that his main adversary is the same Roman Catholic Church he loves and supports with fervor. As the battle intensifies, Pomfret reveals the church hierarchy’s gross hypocrisy, homophobia, rabid anti-gay political agenda, and the fear it instills in gay priests. Not surprisingly, this ugly side of the Church forces Pomfret to scrutinize his own beliefs, and to justify, or not, his continued support of a church that openly and actively discriminates against him.

Pomfret -- best known for the steamy, gay, pornographic novels that he co-authors with his partner Scott Whittier -- paints a funny yet ominous picture of the political power struggle going on in the church hierarchy, an underground gay movement organized by homo priest, and a church in transition (although transitioning to what is still a question).

This memoir is a serious romp, a humorous and intelligent look at the Roman Catholic Church under a magnifying glass, and an interesting look at one man’s attempt to justify his spiritual longings. I seldom laughed out loud, but I found something interesting and humorous on nearly every page. It made me laugh, it made me angry, it made me scrutinize my own beliefs.

Being a Zen Buddhist (which means I don’t believe in a God), I know little about the Catholic Church, and of Christianity in general. I suspect that Catholics will find this memoir much funnier than I, yet I found it an absorbing study of the Church’s teaching and workings. I especially liked the helpful, tongue-in-cheek sidebars that enlightened me on such topics as how to detect a gay Catholic, three easy steps to being excommunicated, and the ten commandments of reading gay porn.

I also was impressed Pomfret’s interpretations of church doctrines, including the following prayer which I found to be very Zen-like:
I don’t know what I want from You, God, if I want anything at all. I don’t want to beseech You, or thank You, or seek Your forgiveness or others’ salvation. I just want to stand naked before You, choked with wonder, uttering a prayer as joyful, guttural, sorrowful, agonizing, and inarticulate as an orgasm.

The one question that kept nagging me throughout this book, like a catchy jingle in my head that I can’t remember the name of, is how a gay man can justify supporting a church that actively discriminates against gay people. To me, that is equally as absurd as gay people supporting the Bush administration (and if you read this book, you’ll notice some not-so-surprising similarities between the two.) It was a question Pomfret asked himself and attempted to answer in the last few chapters, but I found his answer lacking, considering there are many alternatives for spiritual growth that don’t discriminate against anyone.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The various religions are like different roads converging on the same point. What difference does it make if we follow different routes, provided we arrive at the same destination.” But I, for one, disagree. I think that any church that actively discriminates against any portion of the population, including its own followers, impedes the whole human race from attainting that glorious destination.

But by all means, pick up a copy and judge for yourself. You won’t be sorry you did.

Seventy Times Seven by Salvatore Sapienza

Reviewed by Alan Chin

Vito Fortunato, a twenty-seven year old, gay Brother in a Catholic order finds himself torn between his spiritual longings and his carnal desires. Set in the early 1990s, Brother Fortunato is only months away from taking his final vows. Although he and his gay friends frequent gay bars, and he occasionally wakes up with a hangover and wearing only a cock ring, Vito struggles to maintain his celibacy, his spiritual purity, and his ability to forgive others, forgive the Church, and forgive himself. But when Vito is assigned to spend the summer volunteering at a San Francisco AIDS center, he falls in love with Gabriel, a divorced landscaper. When those feelings of love are returned, Vito must choose between his sexual identity and his spiritual idealism.

Sapienza, himself a former Catholic Brother, obviously has an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter -- both the teachings of the Catholic Church and the struggle to integrate Christian beliefs with gay sexual desires -- and it is because of his knowledge that the story comes off seeming so real. This is not a story about a closeted priest who struggles to accept his sexuality; it is a love story, and more importantly, a story about finding dignity, and embracing ourselves. Although I had several issues with this book, the love story that develops between Vito and Gabriel is touching, and a pleasure to read. It made me overlook the many other things that were not so well done.

The story was slow to draw me in, and I didn’t much care for the main characters early on, but that eventually changed as the characters exposed more of themselves. I found the two or three main characters had a wealth of depth, but most of the secondary characters were paper-thin. The main character, Vito, also came off as too preachy in several areas, but that was in keeping with his character and can be easily overlooked.

The read is occasionally jarring because of the abysmal copy editing: jumping back and forth from present tense to past tense for no apparent reason, dozens of typographical and grammatical errors, and a blaring font change. I’ve never before read a published book that was so poorly copyedited.

Those negatives said, I still found this an enjoyable and touching story. I give it three out of five stars.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mahu Surfer By Neil S. Plakcy

Reviewed by Alan Chin

Kimo Kanapa’aka is a detective working on the island of Oahu in Hawaii and has recently been outed on television by his brother, who works for the local station. The Honolulu police chief decides to use Kimo’s outing as an opportunity to send Kimo undercover to investigate the surfers, and three murders on the north shore near Pipeline. Kimo is the perfect candidate since he was a competitive surfer before joining the force. The fact that he’s been outed so publicly provides the chief an opportunity to report that Kimo has left the force due to pressures regarding his sexuality.
Kimo wants to use this case as a way to regain respectability with his fellow officers, but once he begins to infiltrate the close-knit surfer community, he finds he must immerse himself in the north shore’s gay enclave in order to uncover information. Once he gets tangled within the gay web, he finds himself falling deeper and deeper into trouble, both in terms of the case and his personal life.

The story is a glimpse into a sometimes funny, sometimes sexy, sometimes sad struggle of a gay man trying to prove himself in the straight dominated field of law enforcement, while solving a murder case. Watching Kimo juggle his career aspirations, his family obligations, and his sexual needs felt very real. Although I’m not a fan of detective stories, the ending did not particularly surprise me. I found this read rather interesting because I could identify with Kimo’s struggle to blend his sexuality into his professional and family life. It was the main character, rather than the plot, that kept me turning pages.
Being a traveler, I did have one regret: I was hoping that the story would give me more of a feel for life on the islands, and there was some description of the landscape and the culture, but it came in little nibbles, certainly not enough to make a full meal. However, if you like a well written detective story, and the idea of a dark skinned, hunky, Hawaiian surfer snapping the cuffs on you ups you heart rate, then by all means, this will be an enjoyable read.

The Dream Ender By Dorien Grey

Reviewed by Alan Chin

This who-done-it story is set in the early 80s, when a “Gay Cancer” begins sweeping through the gay community. Little is known about the virus, and there is still no test to confirm its presence. Above the general fear of who would be the next to fall sick and die, grows a rumor that some villain is deliberately spreading the virus by having unprotected sex with as many people as possible. Is it true? Could anyone be so dastardly, or is the rumor being spread as a way to close a popular leather bar and financially destroy its owner? Detective Dick Hardesty is called onto the case to find out if the rumors are true, and if so, to track down the murderer. The tension rises as Dick is sucked into a world of leather bars and hospital rooms, chasing the grim reaper as he moves through this unsuspecting gay community.

Although I am, admittedly, not a fan of detective stories, I found The Dream Ender a satisfying read. Beyond the normal mystery plot twists, is the convincing story of a community in turmoil. Having lived through that particular time myself, this story kept me turning pages while remembering all the fear and confusion of the time. It also kept me guessing all the way to the last ten pages.

Dorien Grey paints rather pleasant prose that is spiked with wit. I sometimes felt he was sitting across the desk telling me the story rather than me reading it. He gives detailed descriptions of gay relationships, gay parenting, and the hectic life of a private investigator. Interesting characters, life style details and suspense, make The Dream Ender a good read.

This is the eleventh book in the Dick Hardesty Mystery series. I’ve heard some people call it Dorien’s best work, but I can’t say since this is the first of Dorien’s books I have read. I can say that, having not read the other ten did in no way diminish my enjoyment of this one.

Longhorns By Victor Banis

Reviewed by Alan Chin

On a scorching day on the Texas prairie, Buck rides into the Double H camp where the crew is rounding up steers. Buck, a young half-breed Nasoni Indian, is looking for a job as a cowpuncher, but when he gets an eyeful of Les, the ranch foreman, he quickly decides he wants to wrangle more than just steers. Buck is a cocky, fun-loving, rambunctious, in your face kind of cowboy, and once he’s chasing his bull, he almost always gets his lasso around the horns.
Once Buck is hired, he fits right into this tough, gritty bunch of cowboys who are not afraid to satisfy their natural urges with each other. And out on the vast and lonely prairie, they have a saying: if it don’t scare the cows, who cares? But Buck wants more than to ride bareback under a blanket around the campfire. He finds himself falling hard for Les, and he unabashedly goes about letting everyone know how he feels, especially Les.
Les is in his forties, blond hair graying at the temples, and still tough as nails. He has lived the solitary cowboy life for as long as he can remember, and he is uncomfortable letting anyone, least of all a cocksure young Indian, get too close to heart. But Buck’s flirtatious advances soon have Les flustered, sometimes fuming, and often questioning his own sexuality. The real question is, will he let down his guard long enough for Buck to steal his heart?

Longhorns is not a Brokeback Mountain knockoff. Victor Banis has created a heartwarming, companionate, witty, love story that stands in a class by itself. It is a sexy romp through the old west. The plot may be a simple seduction, but Banis’s consummate skill at crafting prose and his well-researched details keep the reader fully engaged until the last word. If you like fun-loving characters, hot sex, humor, and good writing, lasso this novel and snuggle up with it beside your next campfire.