Category Archives: LGBT Must Reads

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara

The House of Impossible Beauties Title: The House of Impossible Beauties
Author: Joseph Cassara
Publisher: Ecco, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0062676979
Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBT Fiction,
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Authors need to write more in the LGBT space. I know a lot is being written, but, I also think that a lot is still not enough. Books such as “The House of Impossible Beauties” make you see, realize and understand that. I had been wanting to read this one for a while now and I am so happy that the wait paid off because I absolutely loved this gem of a book. There are some books that stick with you, no matter what and this will for sure be one of them.

“The House of Impossible Beauties” is literally that – a house of people living on the edge in the ’80s of New York – a time riddled with confusion, mayhem, and change. From all that I have read and understand, I know it isn’t easy to write an AIDS novel, but this one is so much more than just that. In so many places in the book, I had to put it down and breathe a little, because I could see myself in its pages and not just when it came down to one character or one incident. It was an amalgamation of it all. And yes, I did weep, if not cry while reading it.

At the center of this gregarious, big-hearted novel is Angel – barely seventeen, new to the drag world and ball culture, with a big heart to care for those who need it the most – people who are like her and those without love. She falls in love with Hector, who shares the dream of forming the House of Xtravaganza, the first-ever all-Latino house in the Harlem ball circuit. When Hector dies to AIDS, Angel decides to build the house all by herself and she does.

And this is where it all begins in the book. Part One is about introducing these characters who inhabit the house – Angel, Venus – the trans girl who just wants someone rich to look after her, Daniel who in a way saves Venus and himself and Juanito – the quiet one who is in love with fabrics. The marginality of these characters – of not just being gay or trans but also Latino in the ’80s (and even today it isn’t easy, being either or both of these) shines – almost jumping out of the pages. Cassara opens you to a new world (if new to you that is) and merges it beautifully with characters who sear through your heart.

The writing is not only taut but also funny in so many places. The book is not without humour and perhaps we need more of it to get through the day. The novel is, of course, raw and you wish certain things didn’t happen to them, but they do and through all of it, the House of Xtravaganza stands tall, sheltering them, and how the shifting views of people regarding LGBT population, gives it a totally different form and shape. What I loved is the history of LGBT interspersed far and few in-between the pages, quite cleverly by the author.

“The House of Impossible Beauties” should be read by one and all and not only the LGBT population. It is a novel about empathy, kindness, forgiveness and above all just being who you are, without fear or inhibitions. I only wish I had a house like this to go to when I was growing-up and needed a friend, a mother, or even a lover.

 

 

 

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Don’t Call Us Dead:​ Poems by Danez Smith

Don't Call Us Dead Title: Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems
Author: Danez Smith
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555977856
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I think for the longest time I avoided reading poetry as a genre because I was scared. Prose will kill you. Let me correct that: Good prose will kill you. Great prose will leave you bereft. Or the other way around, but once poetry gets into your veins, you are an addict my friend! There is no way out of it. I was introduced to Neruda. Never say never also might work brilliantly as an adage.

Circa 2018. I love poetry. I love poems that seize my heart and wring it with ease. Sometimes brutally. I failed to keep my promise. Why am I saying all this? Well, because I have just finished reading a brilliant book of poems and I want to let you know how I feel about it. The book in question: “Don’t Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith.

This collection isn’t an easy one to read. If you are planning to read it at a stretch or even in one-sitting, my recommendation is you don’t. Smith doesn’t make poetry floral or sweet-smelling or even bearable for that matter. When it comes to me, I agree with him. Poetry like most form of art only reflects what exists around us and should with very good reason.

“…paradise is a world where everything
is a sanctuary & nothing is a gun…” 

Just by reading these two lines, I was moved like I haven’t been moved in a while. The idea that every place is sanctuary (so remote, isn’t it?) and that nothing is a gun couldn’t have rung truer than it does now. The now that we live in that Danez writes about so and that hits so hard.

Smith’s voice is much needed for everyone, but more so for the black men, for the young black man, the gay man, the kind who have endured a history of oppression and violence or have heard of it. It is for everyone who wants to change the world by reading and understanding and that empathy shines through Danez’s poems. The beauty in all of them is striking, almost heartbreaking even.

Take this one for example, where the loneliness of the gay man is stark and evident, universal that it strikes a chord one way or the other.

“everyone on the app says they hate the app but no one stops

I sit on the train, eyeing men, begging myself to talk to them

 He whispers his name into my lower mouth
I sing a song about being alone”

Danez Smith does not shy away from expressing. Some poems run into pages and lots of pages (and for good reasons) while others are explained briefly and they are as effective as any other poem in the collection. This isn’t micro-poetry. This isn’t slam poetry. It is life, that seeps, bleeds ad yearns through the veins and the pores.

“Don’t Call Us Dead” is set in a time – our time, which is equal parts scary, liberating and melancholic. Let me remove my proverbial hat and tip it for Smith.

 

 

 

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst Title: The Sparsholt Affair
Author: Alan Hollinghurst
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1101874561
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

To read an Alan Hollinghurst novel is to give in. I realized that when I read “The Swimming Pool Library” for the first time and that was also the first time I read a Hollinghurst novel. I was exploring my sexuality. I was learning what it was to be gay and sometimes all you need is another’s experiences – fictional or real to help you tide through and that is what Hollinghursts’ novels did for me. They gave me hope and joy, made me cry, and at the end of all it, made me realize my potential and myself.

“The Sparsholt Affair” – his latest novel is expansive, huge, overwhelming, and a mirror of the changing attitudes of the British toward the LGBTQIA community. The book starts with the arrival of David Sparsholt at Oxford in October 1940 – a handsome athlete, who has everyone taken by him. Hollinghurst wastes no time in getting into the book – we see David through the eyes of his friends and acquaintances and this is how we see Britain as well.

Please do not treat this novel as being just another LGBTQIA novel. It isn’t just that. There is so much more – the universality of emotions that only ring true and nothing else. Hollinghurst has a knack of letting new characters in and old ones disappear just one you’ve started growing comfortable with them. It used to irritate me initially but then I started enjoying it. What the book also does is sort of draw an arc of gay history from the 40’s to 2012. It is magnificent the way Hollinghurst maps it all – from nothing to iPhones and dating apps to the loneliness we all feel and yet there is no one to speak to.

I loved how nothing was served on a platter in this book. Alan makes you work very hard to pick up the clues, to make sense of what is happening and as usual he returns to Henry James one way or the other (I thoroughly enjoyed The Line of Beauty because of the innumerable references to The Spoils of Poynton). “The Sparsholt Affair” is melancholic and hopeful, almost at the same time. Hollinghurst is the master of depicting nostalgia in his books and this one is no different. Read it. Please read it.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala Title: Speak No Evil
Author: Uzodinma Iweala
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 978-0061284922
Genre: Literary Fiction, Coming of Age
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Very few books get me all disturbed and thinking about the world we live in. Yes, most of them are impactful, so to say but none off-late have had the lasting effect that “Speak No Evil” will (of which I am sure). I don’t know what it is about this book that makes you so uncomfortable as a reader that you don’t want to read further. I will not spoil anything for you, but the ending is not what I expected. I was shocked and stunned (but that’s where I will leave it).

“Speak No Evil” can be broadly classified into the literary fiction genre, but it is definitely so much more. It is a coming-of-age book, a book about identity and also a book about being an alien in America, but at the heart of it all, it is a book about Niru, an eighteen-year-old boy who comes out to his best friend Meredith and that’s when things take a turn for the worst.

Niru’s parents were born in Nigeria and immigrated to the U.S to build successful careers and give all the privilege to their sons (who are American-born) which they didn’t receive. Till they discover Niru is gay and all hell breaks loose. His father takes him to Nigeria for the summer to get him rid of being gay and the action takes place again in Washington D.C (where they live), ultimately leading to the end.

The book has two narrators – Niru and Meredith. The bulk of the book is told through Niru – his experiences about not only being gay but also being black (it is always about fitting in, and thinking that when they treat you as the other, it is alright but it so isn’t). Niru’s portion broke my heart so many times. I wanted to reach out to him and tell him it will be okay. I have gone through it and it will become easier with time. But Iweala has to do what he must with Niru and Meredith.

“Speak No Evil” disturbs you because you know all that what takes place in the world and yet we are merely people who standby and do nothing about it. Iweala touches on so many themes through Niru and Meredith – that the subtlety of it all will dazzle you; the writing is powerful, though disjointed at times (maybe that is the allure of this book after all). Niru’s parents’ characters are so strong and yet do not overpower the book. I wish I had known his brother OJ better. There is some vague connect between the brothers but I wish there had been more. It might be all about Niru but Meredith also took my heart away in so many places and overall as well. She loves Niru and feels rejected. There is so much going on with her that she can’t tell and to me the unsaid is always more intriguing, which Iweala has expressed marvelously.

All said and done, “Speak No Evil” is a book that will make your heart sing and mourn at the same time. It may leave you wanting more but also so satisfied. Read. It. Today.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel - Essays by Alexander Chee Title: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays
Author: Alexander Chee
Publisher: Mariner Books, HMH
ISBN: 978-1328764522
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It isn’t easy to write a book of essays that charts life. And when you come across a work that is so lucid, questions the world and has so many identities rolled into itself, that you just have to sit up, take notice and devour it cover to cover. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” by Alexander Chee is one such collection of finest essays of our times and that is mainly because it is as honest as it can get. There is something about books that come from the heart – they manage to get through to you breaking all pretense and that’s what this collection of essays does to you. It gets through.

Alexander Chee’s writing was only known to me through his earlier literary fiction works, “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night” which I loved immensely. This is his foray into non-fiction and I just hope that he continues writing many such essays. What I found a notch above the essay collections I have read in the past couple of months in this one was just the candid and heartwarming way in which they are written.

Chee doesn’t shy from talking about his life, his struggles and his perception of the world at large. When you write non-fiction, you become more susceptible to judgment than when you write fiction. Everyone may not have an opinion about the storyline or characters but one sure does have an opinion (maybe more) on the world and its issues.

Chee’s essays range from growing-up in America and how different identities take over his life – a son, a Korean American, a gay man, a student, a teacher and a novelist amongst others. I loved the way he connected his life to his country and its issues and everything just seemed one. For instance, the section on AIDS and then again on 9/11 were most hard-hitting to me. When he speaks of literature (there are so many references throughout the book), you just want to sit up and listen. I for one, remember re-reading so many passages about writing and what it takes to be a writer.

Alexander Chee’s essays are wry, real, political (everything is political in today’s time and age), and above all makes us ask questions of art and life and what happens to it all, when they come under attack. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” is hands down one of the best essay collections of 2018 and I am not speaking too soon.