Connect with us

Books

A worthy sequel to ‘Maurice’ revisits classic love story

After going to war, couple reunite in intriguing ‘Alec’

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

‘Alec’
By William di Canzio
c.2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$27/336 pages

A sequel that’s nearly as good as the original! An intriguing queer love story! What more could you ask for as summer ends?

Today, on and off the page, queers fall in love, have sex, couple up, marry – embrace polyamory – as frequently and openly as politicos trade insults.

But, until recently, you rarely found LGBTQ+ characters in books. With few exceptions, when you encountered queer people in fiction, they were sick, dying, or in jail.

It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary it was for queers when “Maurice” by the queer, British writer E.M. Forster was posthumously published in 1971.

For many of us, it was the first time we read a love story in which queer lovers ended up alive – unrepentant and unpunished.

Forster, who died at 91 in 1970, began writing “Maurice” in 1913 and finished it in 1914. Yet, he felt it couldn’t be published during his lifetime.

Forster’s novels (especially, “A Passage to India” and “Howards End”) were critically acclaimed.

Forster lectured in England and the United States. Listeners heard him on the radio as he read his acclaimed 1939 essay “What I Believe.”

In this essay, Forster spoke of his belief in personal relations, endorsed the humanistic values of “tolerance, good temper and sympathy” and decried authoritarianism.

His assertion in “What I Believe, that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” has been a credo for many.

Yet, because being queer was illegal in the United Kingdom for most of his lifetime, Forster didn’t want to publish “Maurice” while he was alive.

Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in the United Kingdom until 1967.

Though he was out to some of his friends, Forster couldn’t be openly gay because of the homophobia of his time.

“Maurice,” which Forster dedicated “To a Happier Year,” doesn’t just have LGBTQ characters. Its two gay male lovers, Cambridge-educated, upper-class Maurice, and Alec, a gamekeeper, end up happily.

We may worry about what obstacles they’ll run into while living in such a repressive time. But we know that they’ve gone off together.

“A happy ending was imperative,” Forster writes in a 1960 “Terminal Note” on “Maurice,” “I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise.”

“I was determined that in fiction anyway,” he adds, “two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.”

Forster’s legacy has had a reemergence in this century. “On Beauty,” the 2005 novel by Zadie Smith is an homage to “Howards End.”

Matthew Lopez’s play “The Inheritance,” which ran on Broadway, is, also, in part, an homage to “Howards End.”

Many sequels, no matter how well-intended, aren’t good. This is even more true when classic novels like “Maurice” are involved.

Yet, in “Alec,” distinguished, gay playwright di Canzio has pulled off an engrossing, lively, moving feat of the imagination.

In “Maurice,” we see things from Maurice’s perspective. On a visit to his friend Clive, a country squire, he meets Alec, Clive’s game keeper.

We know that Alec and Maurice, after both trying to blackmail each other, fall in love. But we learn little about Alec except that he loves Maurice.

In “Alec,” we view things from Alec’s eyes. Alec, in di Canzio’s reimagining, is a three-dimensional character with feelings, ambitions and a back story.

Born in Dorset, England in 1893 to working class parents, Alec loves to read. He knows, because of his class, that he won’t be able to go to college.

But he soaks up as much literature as he can at the library.

He enjoys reading about classic Greek myths and looking at pictures of art depicting the hunky, mythic heroes.

Early on, Alec knows that he likes boys and men. Though there’s no way he can be openly gay, he’s fine with his sexuality.

“It kept him out of trouble with girls,” di Canzio writes.

Following his father in his line of work, doesn’t appeal to Alec. His dad is a butcher. He doesn’t want to become a servant to rich people if he’d have to be at their beck and call inside their house. Knowing that he has to do some type of work, Alec becomes a gamekeeper for Clive, a country squire.

He and Maurice meet when Maurice visits Clive. As in “Maurice,” the lovers, after much angst and bungled blackmail attempts, go off together.

Up to this point, di Canzio is following the plot of “Maurice” – even quoting some of the dialogue from the novel.

In lesser hands, this might seem too plodding or too derivative. But di Canzio’s retelling the story, though a bit slow, is fresh. You want to keep reading.

The lovers live together happily for a time. They can’t be openly gay. Yet, they find people like themselves and LGBTQ-friendly folk in salons, clubs, and other underground queer spaces.

World War I shatters their happiness. Serving under horrific conditions in separate places, Alec and Maurice don’t know if they’ll survive or find each other after the war.

“How many of our stories have been expunged – from history, from memory?” a friend asks the couple.

You’ll keep turning the page to discover how Alec and Maurice’s story ends.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Books

‘Fiona and Jane’ an enticing look at lifelong friendship

Two women bicker, fall distant – then meet again

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘Fiona and Jane’
By Jean Chen Ho
c. 2022, Viking
$26/275 pages

“Fiona and Jane,” a new short story collection by Jean Chen Ho is an enticing New Year’s present. The captivating volume features secrets, family conflict, queerness, astute cultural observations, and above all, friendship.

We long to fall in love. So we lose our hearts to our lovers and go to pieces when our relationships break up.

Yet, especially, if we’re women and/or queer, we want a best friend as much, maybe more, than we do a lover.

Fiona and Jane, Asian Americans, grew up in Los Angeles. They’ve been best friends since they met in LA in second grade. Jane’s family emigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan. Fiona, with her mother, came to LA from Taiwan when she was a young child.

In “Fiona and Jane,” Ho’s debut collection, the two friends over 30 years grow from second-graders to 30-somethings. Ho’s linked stories draw us into Fiona and Jane’s friendship as they become, at different times, incredibly close, then distant (both geographically and emotionally) from each other.

Ho, 41, has more writing chops than you can imagine. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California where she is a Dornsife Fellow in fiction. Ho has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her writing has been published in The Georgia Review, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeney’s, and other publications.

Ho was born in Taiwan, grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. But, “none of the things that happen to Fiona and Jane are autobiographical,” she said on the podcast “All of It with Alison Stewart,” “I didn’t mine my particular life experiences and put them in the book out of respect to my oldest and dearest friends.”

Fiona is hetero, smart  and attractive. As a teen, she earns enough money to buy a secondhand car (named Shamu, Ho writes, “after the Sea World killer whale because of the corroding white patches all over the black paint.”).

While Fiona’s mother isn’t religious, Jane’s Mom is devoutly Christian. Jane is bisexual. When she and Fiona are teens, they kiss  “to practice” – what kissing’s like. Though she doesn’t tell her Mom, Jane, when a teenager, has a romantic relationship with her female piano teacher.

When she’s young, Jane often does what Fiona does. Because Jane’s tall, she’s often thought of as “Fiona’s bodyguard.” As she grows older, Jane begins to rely more on herself.

Fiona is eager to leave LA. She goes to college, then moves to New York City with her first boyfriend. She enters law school, then drops out.

Jane stays in Los Angeles. She opts to take a gap year between high school and college. The gap year morphs into a couple of years. Jane has relationships with women as well as with Julian, a vet who has PTSD.

Though Fiona and Jane are quite different from one another, they keep circling back to each other. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they both have lost their fathers.

In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “The Night Market,” Jane speaks of her visit before she graduated high school to Taiwan where she has come to see her Dad. Her Dad has gone from LA to Taiwan for a temporary job. Jane learns that he’s going to stay in Taiwan because he’s fallen in love with a man there. Her Dad asks her to keep this a secret. But, in her pain at his revelation, she outs him. Jane blames herself for his suicide.

Fiona discovers as a child that she’s never known her father. Her mother raises her on her own.

Over the years, Fiona and Jane bicker, fall distant – then meet again. As teens, they help each other get fake IDs so they can drink. As adults, they help each other through moving apartments, love affairs and mourning.

 “Sixteen years since my father died, and I was still alive,” Jane thinks, “I got up, every morning. I lived, day by day. I had my best friend, Fiona Lin.”

Check out “Fiona and Jane.” Then, text your best friend.

Continue Reading

Books

Seeking love and community in Nicaragua

‘High-Risk Homosexual’ explores author’s youth, coming out

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Soft Skill Press)

High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir
By Edgar Gomez
c.2022, Soft Skull Press
$16.95/304 pages

Here. Try this.

It fits you, but the color isn’t flattering. It’s too long, too short, too tight, too loose. That’s not your style, so try something else until you find the thing that looks like you. The perfect thing is out there. As in the new book “High-Risk Homosexual” by Edgar Gomez, when something’s right, it’s right.

He was 13 when he figured out that he was a problem to be solved.

Edgar Gomez’ mother had left him in her native Nicaragua with his tíos, just for a while because she had to return to Florida to work. He wasn’t there without her for long, but it took years for him to understand that his time with his uncles was meant to make him more masculine.

In retrospect, he says, nobody wanted him to be a man more than he did. He wanted to be liked by other kids and so he told lies in school to make himself stand out. He wanted his mother to see his love of pretty things and say that it was OK. He wanted his brother to acknowledge that Gomez was gay, and to tell him that he loved him.

Instead, after his brother left for college, Gomez got his first boyfriend, a boy he came out to but who couldn’t come out to himself. He was called names in school. He came out to his mother, who freaked out about it. He befriended a drag queen, but “Princess” used him.

Things he wanted: a real boyfriend. Love. A ban on the stereotype of a macho Latinx man.

Things he still had, while in college: his mother and older brother. A tormentor-turned-mentor. A part-time job. His weirdness. His virginity.

Things he wanted to lose, while in college: his room at his mother’s house. His virginity, but that wouldn’t happen until later, during a painful one-afternoon-stand with a hot man who said he had a girlfriend. That hurt, both physically and emotionally but like so many things at so many times, Gomez tried not to think about it.

If he never considered what he didn’t have, he says, “I wouldn’t miss it.”

In a way, you could say that “High-Risk Homosexual” is a book in search of a point. It’s really quite random and told (mostly) linearly, but not quite. It has its peaks, but also low valleys. And you won’t care about any of this, because you’ll be enjoying every bit of it.

Yeah, this memoir is good: author Edgar Gomez’s literary wandering makes it feel much like an honest conversation with readers. There are wince-worthy moments that allow empathy here, and experiences that are unique but oddly ubiquitous, that leave space for a sense of sympatico. There are passages that are so wistfully uncomfortable that you might squirm, or start “snort-laughing,” or want to stop a moment and just think.

And there’s room for that, too, so take your time. “High-Risk Homosexual” is an affable book with just enough seriousness to make it worth a try.

Continue Reading

Books

A lesbian Baby Boomer’s relatable story

‘Audacity of a Kiss’ a warm, familiar biography

Published

on

The Audacity of a Kiss: A Memoir
By Leslie Cohen
c.2021, Rutgers University Press
$24.95/235 pages

Don’t move.

Stay entirely still, don’t even breathe. You’re about to become a symbol of something that’s bigger than you are, something you’ll be proud of for the rest of your days. Don’t flinch, scratch, or sneeze, just don’t do anything. Don’t. Move. Unless it’s to turn the pages of “The Audacity of a Kiss” by Leslie Cohen.

Behind every statue is a story, and the one behind those representing four people in Christopher Park in New York’s Greenwich Village is no different. But to explain how this monument came about means also telling a long love story and a tale about a nightclub.

Leslie Cohen’s mother was her very best friend, although there were misunderstandings in the relationship. Seven-year-old Leslie couldn’t see why she received pink girly things for her birthday. In later years, she couldn’t understand why her mother deferred to Leslie’s father and endured his abuse.

The one thing Cohen did understand was that once puberty hit, the boys in her neighborhood were no longer pals to roughhouse with. She was supposed to want to date them and it didn’t entirely make sense, but Cohen went along with it even after she left home for college. She went out with boys and lost her virginity to one, but meeting Beth was the most remarkable thing about higher learning. She was sure she was in love with Beth, but Beth was obsessed with a boy and so Cohen moved on.

She moved on to other men and then women, at a time when women loving women was unthinkable, and the Summer of Love. Cohen embraced her lesbianism, fell in and out of love, and went into a partnership with three other women to open New York’s first lesbian club, where lesbians and straight feminists were welcome to dance and drink.

To be sure, it was a heady time. Cohen worked nonstop, gained confidence and learned to run a bar business. She was busy, but happy.

And then Beth came back into her life.

Let’s face it: author Leslie Cohen’s life story is basically like that of a lot of lesbians born at the beginning of the Baby Boom. A solid childhood, confusion, self-awareness, entrepreneurship all make a somewhat familiar story set apart by one abundant thing: warmth.

Indeed, “The Audacity of a Kiss” is an easy tale. It’s comfortable, like a crackling fireplace and a glass of wine on a cushy sofa.There are accomplishments here, told so that you really share the pride in them. Readers are shown the struggle that Cohen had, too, but experiences are well-framed by explanations of the times in which they occurred, with nothing overly dramatic – just the unabashed truth, and more warmth. Opening this book, in a way, then, is like accepting an invitation to own the recliner for an evening, and you won’t want anything else.

Younger lesbians will get a lot from this book, but anyone who’s been there will relish it. Get “The Audacity of a Kiss,” then sit down and don’t move.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular