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Jeremy Denk’s memoir proves he’s as gifted with words as with music

Gay pianist’s coming-of-age story has broad appeal

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(Book cover image courtesy of Random House)

Every Good Boy Does Fine
By Jeremy Denk
c.2020, Random House
$28.99/368 pages

When I was nine, my parents decided I should learn to play a musical instrument. A teacher in our town tried to get me to take to the guitar. “Her playing was remarkable,” he said, aiming for tact, but sounding as if he’d just bitten into a cat litter sandwich.

You might think “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” the new memoir by Jeremy Denk, the gay, MacArthur-genius-award-winning concert pianist, would have little appeal for musical philistines like me. Or that Denk’s coming-of-age story would only tickle the ivories of  musicians and their aficionados.

But you would be wrong. Denk, a “New Yorker” writer, is a superb wordsmith. He’s as gifted with words as he is with the piano.

The memoir is structured around a through-line of musical lessons (in harmony, melody and rhythm). In these chapters, Denk writes with intelligence, wit, and wonderful metaphors of music and the arduous discipline and practice needed to learn to play the piano.

One day when he was 12, Denk, who was born in 1970, bought a cassette of Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante with the Cleveland Orchestra.” “I was the kind of kid who thought he’d already figured out Mozart,” Denk writes, “but could barely tie his shoelaces.”

Denk, winner of the Avery Fisher Prize, began piano lessons at age six. It was soon clear that he was talented.

From childhood on, Denk endured the tedium of practicing the piano. “Scales were the ultimate joyless task,” he writes, “an endless and recursive tedium.”

Denk’s family moved from North Carolina to New Jersey when he was six and from New Jersey to New Mexico when he was 10.

In New Mexico, Denk took lessons from William Leland, a New Mexico State University piano professor. In Oberlin College (which he entered at 16), he decided to become a musician.

In graduate school, Denk studied under the acclaimed pianist Gyorgy Sebok, and he received a Ph.D. from Julliard in 2001.

Denk’s writing about music and his teachers will be catnip to musicians and classical music fans. But his stories of sweat, competition, enduring criticism — nurturing one’s talent will resonate with everyone from athletes to artists to chefs to race car drivers.

Learning to be a concert pianist isn’t for the faint of heart. “‘Why are you fucking waiting?’ he yelled in my face,” Denk writes about a lesson with an acclaimed teacher, “coating me with a fine film of Scotch-scented saliva.”

Denk’s bio is proof that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He’s emerged from the grueling lessons as a rock star! Denk’s recordings have reached #1 on the Billboard classical charts.

Thankfully, “Every Good Boy Does Fine” isn’t only the story of Denk’s professional growth. The memoir has a parallel, by turns funny, sad, ironic –gut-wrenching, narrative of Denk’s personal life.

His mother is an alcoholic. His Dad is demanding. His brother doesn’t know what to make of his obsession with classical music. Denk has a hard time becoming comfortable with being gay.

Denk knew early on that he was different from other kids. “I was eager to be brave,” he writes of the ecstatic moment at age 12 when he listened to the cassette of Mozart. “I wanted to share the moment with my parents.”

“But I worried,” Denk writes, “my father would make a joke, or my brother would think I was showing off, or my mother would ask why I hadn’t dusted the living room.”

Denk emerges from the memoir as endearingly human. He’s delighted to be kissed by Princess Diana (when he’s awarded the third prize in a competition). 

“Why do you play so loud?” a man asks him in the bathroom after he’s performed a concert in Munich.

You’re happy with Denk when he finds love.

“Every Good Boy Does Fine” is one of the best memoirs I’ve read this year. It’s never out-of-tune.

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Fascinating mystery novel features gay private eye in 1947 Philly

‘Knock off the Hat’ explores a world before LGBTQ rights advances

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(Book cover image courtesy of Amble Press)

‘Knock Off the Hat: A Clifford Waterman Gay Philly Mystery’
By Richard Stevenson
c.2022, Amble Press
$18.95/200 pages

The Horn & Hardart automat is a great place to meet friends and eat (on the cheap) delicious meatloaf and coconut cream pie.

People wonder when Connie Mack, the Philadelphia Athletics’ manager, will retire and have a ballpark named after him.

If you’re queer, you dance, drink and hook-up in gay bars.

Life is good. Even on summer nights when few places are air conditioned. Except that if you’re queer, you can be  arrested if you’re in a gay bar that’s raided by the police. If you’re arrested, your name will likely appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer on a list of “deviants.”

This is the world of Clifford Waterman, a gay private eye, the protagonist of “Knock Off the Hat,” the fascinating new mystery by Richard Stevenson.

The novel is set in 1947 in Philadelphia. During World War II, Clifford, a former police detective, was in the Army. He was an Army MP in Cairo, where he jokes, “I was working with US Army unintelligence.”

Clifford was dishonorably discharged from the Army for being gay. Though ironically, his job in the service was to round up “drunks,” “dope fiends” and “perverts.”

An officer found him one night, “enjoying the company of a nice man named Idriss, who normally cleaned the latrines,” Clifford says. “On this particular occasion, this pleasant chappie was cleaning my latrine.” 

The era in which Clifford lives is repressive. The House Un-American Activities Committee is going after queer people and suspected Communists. If you’re LGBTQ and arrested in a bar raid, you’ll lose your job if your employer reads about it in the paper. 

Yet Clifford respects himself. He proudly hangs his dishonorable discharge on his office wall. 

In “Knock Off the Hat,” Clifford is called upon to use his detective skills, street-smarts and connections in the queer community, to solve a terrifying, puzzling mystery.

Usually, queer people who are arrested in a gay bar raid for “disorderly conduct,” can pay off Judge Harold Stetson. (Stetson is called “the Hat” because his surname is the name of a type of hat.) If they pay the judge $50 (a lot of money, but, with some belt-tightening, doable), they’ll avoid “public humiliation along with a hefty fine or even jail time,” Stevenson writes.

But now, the judge and his clerk have gone bonkers. They’re requiring queer people to pay Judge Stetson $500. If they don’t pay up, their professional and personal life will be ruined.

Scarcely anyone can afford this sum. A gay man, who’s proud to be a salesperson in the shoe department of the glam department store Wanamakers, is comparatively lucky. After he’s arrested in a bar raid, he sells his car to get the $500 to pay off the judge. Other queer people end up working at gas stations or even kill themselves because they don’t have that kind of money.

“Knock Off the Hat” takes place at a time when queer lives were, largely, devalued. Yet it’s far from grim.

The novel is filled with dark humor and engaging characters from an actress who pretends to be a deceased gay man’s fiancee to a left-wing queer farmer. In one scene, after Lauren Bacall drops into a dinner party, it’s revealed that her “dick” is “bigger than Bogie’s.”

Richard Stevenson is the pen name of the groundbreaking mystery writer Richard Lipez. “Knock Off the Hat,” was published after Lipez, who was openly gay, died at 83 in March 2022. Lipez envisioned “Knock Off the Hat” as being the first in a series featuring Clifford Waterman.

Also, under the pseudonym Richard Stevenson, Lipez over four decades (beginning in 1981 with “Death Trick”) wrote 17 mysteries featuring the queer detective Donald Strachey. “Chasing Rembrandt,” the last of the Donald Strachey series, will be released by ReQueered Tales in fall 2022.

The Strachey mysteries, set in Albany, N.Y., in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, are less dark than “Knock Off the Hat.” Donald Strachey, his lover Timmy and many of the other queer characters dance, cruise, and indulge in camp humor. Yet without being preachy, the Strachey mysteries address AIDS and other serious issues.

“Knock Off the Hat” is as riveting as the best of Raymond Chandler. Though it’s highly entertaining, reading it in this “Don’t Say Gay” era, is sobering. The novel with its depiction of a time when queers had no rights is a chilling reminder that we can’t afford to be complacent.

This isn’t meant to be a downer. Libation in hand, treat yourself this summer. Check out “Knock Off the Hat.”   

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Books

Celebrating Arab and Muslim heritage, art, gastronomy

Three new books open a window to influential cultures

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‘Portugal: The Cookbook’ explores the Arab roots of Portuguese cooking.

As a college student, I hungered for Arab and Muslim representation. Prejudice against our communities was mainstream and demoralizing. Things, however, can sometimes change sooner than we expect. 

Although Muslims and Arabs are still maligned, it is no longer as widespread and is often counterbalanced by allyship and, crucially, Muslim and Arab representation. From Hulu’s “Remy,” Netflix’s “Master of None,” HBO Max’s “Sort Of,” to the upcoming premiere of Disney+’s “Ms. Marvel” to Muslim characters on “Love Victor,” “Never Have I Ever,” and “Genera+ion,” Muslim characters and creators are now common. And these creators are diverse, proud, and often queer. 

Mahersalah Ali is a two-time Oscar winner (one for the Black queer Best Picture winner “Moonlight”) and Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor; he won an Oscar this year for a short film taking on British xenophobia, and spearheading an initiative to boost Muslim representation in Hollywood from screenwriters to actors. 

From starving to satisfied, it has been quite a transformation in American culture. And it’s not only TV and film. Political representation isn’t novel anymore. I still remember when former Rep. Keith Ellison was asked on CNN to prove his loyalty by the conservative host Glenn Beck. Today, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are progressive trailblazers. Irvine, Calif., has a Muslim mayor in Farrah Khan. Joe Biden has nominated the first Muslims to the federal judiciary, one has been confirmed and the other, civil rights lawyer Nusrat Choudhury, awaits Senate confirmation. And Biden, lest we forget, said “inshallah” (God willing) on the presidential debate stage. “We’ve made it,” I want to shout. But I know we’re still fighting for full normalization in American life.

Hence my excitement over three new books (two cookbooks and one art text) that feature Arab and Muslim heritage, art, and gastronomy. 

Arab roots of Portuguese cooking 

“To these new rulers [the Moors], cuisine was an art, and food a gift from God that should be consumed in moderation and shared with those in need,” writes Leandro Carreira, the author of “Portugal: The Cookbook.” It’s not surprising to learn that Arabs and Berbers shaped the evolution of Portuguese cuisine, but what’s striking is the nature of its legacy. In this cookbook of 700 recipes, half draw from the Moors. 

When Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) they brought with them not only warriors and administrators but architects, astronomers, poets, and, inter alia, cooks along with cookbooks, such as the Medieval “Kitab al Tabikh.” 

The Moors introduced hydraulics that irrigated the farmland (along with orchards and leafy gardens) and beautified the land by planting citrus trees both for the fruit and scent. The list of crops introduced by Moors includes eggplant, artichoke, carrot, lentils, cucumber, and lettuce. The latter would later christen the residents of Lisbon, who are colloquially known as Alfachinhas (“little lettuces”). Moors popularized sour oranges, apricots, dates, melons, and watermelons; spices such as pepper and ginger; pickling of olives and nuts; sour marinade to preserve fish; rose water and orange blossom. The Moors’ vinegary salads were the precursor to gazpacho. The introduction of sugarcane later severed Portuguese colonization and fueled the slave trade, and transformed sugar from luxury to staple. 

Naturally, the North African rulers brought couscous, the main consumed wheat until the late 16th century. To this day, northwestern Portuguese villagers prepare couscous using the methods and utensils introduced by Berbers 900 years ago. 

The Moors cultivated hospitality and conviviality at the table along with the order in which food is served: soups followed by fish or meat and concluding with sweets. The Arabs’ cousins, the Jews played their part in shaping Portuguese cooking, too. Jews prepared their post-Sabbath meal by laying aside a slow-burning stew of meat, chickpeas, collard greens, hard-boiled eggs, and vegetables; today, the Portuguese call it Adafina. Jews introduced deep-fried vegetables and Portuguese missionaries later brought them to Japan and (voilà!) tempura. 

In its history, “Portugal” evokes our interwoven humanity. 

Arabiyya: Cooking as an Arab in America

The past few years have seen cookbooks with narratives of culture and personal journeys foregrounding recipes — many focused on Arab culture. “The Gaza Kitchen” by Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt and “The Palestinian Table” and “The Arabesque Table” by Reem Kassis, for example. To this list, we can add “Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora” by the James Beard finalist Reem Assil. 

For connoisseurs of Arab food in America, Reem is no stranger. Reem’s California, a bakery in Oakland and San Francisco, has acquired temple status for its use of California’s ingredients in the service of Arab dishes. A few years ago, the New York Times praised Reem’s as an “Arab Bakery in Oakland Full of California Love.” (The bakery was, sadly, the target of vulgar anti-Palestinian prejudice for its mural of Palestinian activist Rasmeah Odeh.) 

Food was Reem’s saving grace. Facing a debilitating digestive disorder, and the wreck of familial stress, Reem left college and headed to the Bay Area live with her Arab uncle and Jewish aunt. Soothed by California’s climate, nature, and ingredients, she found mental and physical healing — and roots and purpose. 

“Arabiyya” is a guide to California-based, Arab-rooted recipes alongside tales of Reem’s journey and her family’s. Her grandparents fled the Nakba — the 1948 “catastrophe” of the forced exile of roughly 750,000 Palestinians at the hands of Israeli troops — and the Naksa, the 1967 War that forced her family to decamp once more for Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War led to one more flight to Greece, and finally, California.

Growing up American, Reem knew little of her grandmother’s resilience. After her sitty’s (colloquial Arabic for grandmother) passing, she pasted together tales from relatives of her grandmother’s determination to uphold Arab hospitality no matter where she landed. Her identity as a Palestinian was threatening both in Lebanon and America — but she walked with dignity. Arab hospitality meant that home was a safe comfort no matter the headwinds outside, and, at times, her grandmother went lengths to survive. A tale of sneaking out during a pause in fighting in Beirut became family lore: sitty couldn’t forget her lemons (who would serve fish without lemons?!) even after a rocket attack knocked her down. 

Food’s healing and grounding became the thread uniting Reem with sitty. “I’ve come to realize that my grandmother, who loaded the table to its edges with tasty morsels of my favorite foods, lives through me,” Reem relates. 

Reem’s journey to cook and bake as love and spontaneity opened a window to heritage — a family’s history and Arab pride. Her recipes (like the California Fattoush Salad where traditional tomatoes are swapped for oranges and citrus and fried sunchokes) overflow with love. “Arabiyya” is destined to be a classic among Arab-Americans. 

Arab artists in their prime 

Artists from the Arab world exhibiting in the West face a challenge: Our culture is ubiquitous in Western depictions but poorly understood; a dilemma for the artist who must inevitably “interrogate the stereotypes that spectators bring to the practice of looking at mythologized places,” in the words of critic Omar Kholeif in his review of the Abu Dhabi-born and NYC and Dubai-based Farah Al Qasimi. 

Al Qasimi is one of five Arab artists featured in the new collection on “art’s next generation” entitled “Prime.” In “After Dinner 2” (2018), Al Qasimi captures the pressures of domestic life in her native UAE and the misconceptions westerners have about Arab domesticity. A mother stands behind her daughter kneeling on the couch while looking out at the window. The mother’s stance is recognizable to any child raised by an Arab mother: head tilted up and her arms stretched out — a plea for God’s mercy in the face of a stubborn child. The pink and white staging of the drapes and couch suggest the mother-daughter dispute is about marriage, the daughter having sights on another admirer. Neither the daughter’s nor the mother’s face is visible. The mother’s face overflows out of frame while the daughter’s rests behind the drapes. Al Qasimi’s photograph turns on its head the Western conception that Arab women are hidden “behind the veil;” their life is plain to see if one discards their preconceived notions and recognizes that mothers and daughters differ universally. 

Gulf Arab states, soaked in oil and gas money, however, pander to Western standards. Alia Farid scrutinizes the imitation. Urbanization has upended life in the Gulf, including in the official representation of culture. Seeking to parade heritage, Gulf states are crafting historical narratives that embody less the realization of culture and more a contrived display that weaves together disparate artifacts, as Farid displays in a mock-museum exhibition titled “Vault” (2019). These exhibitions stand as staid advertisements — a defensive declaration: “We, too, have culture!” — placing together all manners of ancient and modern objects without telling a coherent story or inspiring new creativity. 

In a juxtaposition, “At the Time of the Ebb” (2019) is a video installation documenting the celebration of Nowruz Sayadeen (Fisherman’s New Year) on the island of Qeshm, Iran. “We are brought close to culture at its grassroots level — the suggestion being that cultural life is built in communities as opposed to something to represent within the entanglements of a global museum industry, one that willfully neglects the culture it seeks to validate,” observe critics Hana Noorali and Lynton Talbot. 

The Middle East’s wars and rivalries inform the work of Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet, who works in Beirut and San Francisco. “Steel Rings” (2013) is a recreation of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline that was abandoned due to political upheaval but not before hundreds of miles of pipes were laid (and remain) underground. In Tabet’s exhibition, steel rings laid on the floor stand in for the pipeline’s route with engravings on the rings marking the locations passed underneath. The uncompleted pipeline is the only material project to exist between five regional nations. It is a sad statement on the region’s divisions that the only thing crossing that many borders is abandoned and buried steel. Humanization of the region’s troubles comes into relief in “Cyprus” (2015). The installation consists of a 1,800-pound wooden boat suspended from the ceiling. The boat was deployed by the artist’s father to flee Lebanon’s civil war but was unable to complete the journey to the neighboring island. Years later, the family found it on the coastline. Suspended in midair, solitary, the boat speaks to the anguish burdening people in the face of conflict — a hardship that is often insurmountable, like the boat drawback by the current. “Cyprus” centers our thoughts beyond the headlines — obscuring the human toil — and toward people struggling in their wake. 

It is refreshing to see Arab artists creating thought-provoking art on their own terms. And so, the wheels of American life roll on as we crave our hearts on its road.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

New book explores history of Fire Island

Scholarly memoir recounts 1938 hurricane and its aftermath

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(Book cover image courtesy of Hanover Square Press)

‘Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise’
By Jack Parlett
c.2022, Hanover Square Press
$27.99/272 pages

Ugh, it’s been a week.

Two hours into Monday and your brain was already screaming for something fun, something far removed from work, a getaway that lets you play. You need to dance this weekend. You need to feel the sun on your face and sand between your toes. And you may need to bring “Fire Island” by Jack Parlett with you, too.

Geographically speaking, Manhattan and Fire Island are a mere 60 miles apart.

Sixty miles – and half a world. Stretched out and  narrow but walkable, the island is home to several vacation communities. Two of them, Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, both located in about the middle of the island, feature prominently in LGBTQ history.

Parlett says that Native Americans sold Fire Island to white Europeans for a pittance, after which activities there were shifty and possibly illegal. By the 1820s, conversely, it was a hot vacation spot for the elite; in certain places, it was the place for finding romance, too, which Parlett says was a sign of the future. Famous men like poet Walt Whitman were big fans of Fire Island and over the next century, a then-quiet queer subculture began to grow.

Sometimes, it grew with families and children in the picture, the latter raised by nonconformists and theater people.

Even so, despite these many changes, Parlett says that Fire Island wouldn’t be what it is today, were it not for a hurricane that hit the island on the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938. It devastated Fire Island and resulted in a real-estate bust. Cottage prices fell significantly, and vacationing there suddenly became affordable for gay New Yorkers.

Throughout the 20th century, Fire Island became a playground for performers, thinkers, and writers such as James Baldwin and W. H. Auden. It was a source of controversy for locals who objected to nude bathing. It was a source of embarrassment for Noel Coward. It allowed everyday gay men and women to dance, drink, and party freely.

And later on, it was a place to mourn.

Considering that this is a book about a getaway destination, “Fire Island” isn’t much of a vacation-y read. It’s actually pretty dry, in fact, and filled with people that were once very famous but aren’t exactly household names anymore. Their drama and the love triangles they struggled with are mildly interesting, in the way that you might perceive great-grandma’s old Confidential magazines in the attic.

And yet – the history. Author Jack Parlett offers a lot of solid information beyond those tired scandals to further show how Fire Island came to be a gay hot-spot and why that was important. These tales envelope the rest of the island, as well as current events in America, as a whole, and the impact those outside influences had on LGBTQ life, even today.

More scholarly than not, this book also includes a fair bit of memoir for readers who are looking for something less frivolous. If you want a book for fun, though, “Fire Island” is weak.

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