Elegant Writing Makes Oldest Confederate Widow Jump Off the Page

Allan Gurganus' "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All."

Allan Gurganus’ “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”

I’m grateful to a friend for introducing me to Allan Gurganus and recommending this book, which ranks among the best novels I’ve ever read. Lovers of language will be enthralled with Gurganus’s writing, sharp as a hound dog’s sense of smell with imagery brilliant as sunlight reflecting off dewy grass. The author’s gift for words, dialect, description and conveying emotion makes it a compelling read.

The narrator, a Southern woman whose good humor belies a life filled with tragedy and hard luck, speaks directly to the reader but the story reveals the viewpoints of several characters — a Confederate soldier who went to war at age 13, a freed slave with undying ties to her homeland, a plantation owner changed by the ravages of war — and Gurganus evokes settings, whether it be a battlefield in Virginia, a riverside settlement in Africa, or a dark livery stable in North Carolina, by appealing to the reader’s every sense.

Most remarkable are his descriptions of characters which make them jump off the page: “From the door, two old people people came forward, walking just alike, side by side. They looked varnished brown. They appeared roasted, like they were past ever dying — like everything moist in them had been baked, like what stayed on would last. Their faces: little fist-sized hams.”

Or this one: “Lack of teeth meant Reba Woman’s nose most chafed against her chin. Poor thing had nostrils so wide open, they about like spare eye sockets waiting for eyeballs to roll down in there on vacation.”

Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus

Today, we hear so much about veterans returning from war with post traumatic stress syndrome. Gurganus makes it clear that this is not a modern phenomenon. One of his main characters is a man whose life is devastatingly affected by the boyhood trauma of killing a Yankee soldier, a teenager just a year or two older than him.

Ultimately, Gurganus has written a book that is anti-war and anti-gun. Given recent debates about gun control, I was surprised to read this prescient passage from a book published in 1984: “Now, of course, daily newspapers are full of such killings. People walk into grammar schools and shoot kids they’ve never even seen before: because last week’s paper described somebody walking into another school and shooting other unknown kids and because something in that appealed to them.”

When he wrote that passage, Gurganus could not have known how bad things would get.

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Julian Exposes Palm Springs as Just a Little Peyton Place

Robert Julian's "Hollywood or Lust."

Robert Julian’s “Hollywood or Lust.”

Recounting the controversy spawned by his first tell-all book, “Postcards from Palm Springs,” author Robert Julian wraps up the prologue to his latest book by saying that “truth-telling is a gift that keeps on giving.” He doesn’t make a distinction between truth-telling and TMI.

Revealing too much information is the reason Julian was vilified in some circles for “Postcards,” a book that would hardly have registered as a blip on anyone’s radar — or gaydar — had it not become fodder for a two-page spread in the Los Angeles Times giving the self-published memoir extended life.

Completing a trilogy with “Hollywood or Lust,” Julian seems to have plumbed Palm Springs for its most interesting stories in his earlier books, leaving the dregs for his last installment. It begins with a voyeuristic vignette at a small annual event for gay men who have a fetish for penile pumps — suction devices used to make their manhood look larger.

Julian explains in the preface how he intentionally puts himself in situations that make him feel uncomfortable or that are “entirely foreign” to him to expand his understanding of Palm Springs. Presumably this is his reason for joining the pageant of pumpers. It’s doubtful his descriptions, often very funny, would be shocking or enlightening to his gay readers, but straight women, whom he says comprise a large percentage of his readers, might find them peculiar, if not repugnant.

One could conclude that Julian opens with this salacious scenario at the Canyon Club Hotel to further portray the “hyper-sexualized environment of 21st century gay Palm Springs” that he hopes is captured onscreen if his first book ever becomes a TV show.

There are two main threads to “Hollywood or Lust.” One ties together the ultimately fruitless machinations of having “Postcards” turned into a TV series. Through numerous starts, stops and delays of the project Julian discovers a Hollywood rampant with homophobia despite the fact that gays hold many high-powered positions.

The other dominant storyline reports Julian’s efforts to expose collusion between the Palm Springs Police Department and the Indio branch of the Riverside County District Attorney’s office in 2009. An illicit backroom agreement, the author posits, resulted in an undercover sting operation targeting gay men for engaging in lewd and lascivious behavior in Warm Sands.

In bringing injustice to light, Julian notes that at the time there was a unproportionate number of openly gay officers on the city’s police force and that a prejudice against gays existed at the department’s very top.

“Palm Springs has a total population of 45,000 and there are 100 officers on the police force,” he writes. “We have a gay mayor, a gay majority on city council, a gay population of approximately 20,000 men and women, and we have only one openly gay officer on the force? This suggests a problem and it’s not a small one.”

While his personal commitment to solving the problem ebbs over time, Julian chronicles how the case of entrapment was resolved for men caught in the sting.

Overall, “Hollywood or Lust” triangulates between Julian’s past life in San Francisco, his present life in Palm Springs and his potential future in Hollywood; the result is a disjointed memoir in which the two main stories are broken up by unrelated but not altogether uninteresting anecdotes about the author’s audition for a game show and an evening spent as an interloper with a local lesbian at a seedy Palm Springs strip club long past its prime.

Robert Julian

Robert Julian

While he is ensconced in Palm Springs with his now-deceased longtime partner Patrick, Julian writes about the community, where he serves on a neighborhood association advisory council, with a sense of detachment and a slight air of superiority.

Along the journey, the author laments about the process of aging as well as discriminatory ageism that permeates Hollywood. Perhaps in defiance, he employs references that will be alien to younger readers — Eve Harrington, Electrolux, “Day of the Locusts,” Nick and Nora Charles — and some like Chester Morris, whom he admits would not be known to anyone under the age of 60.

An anachronistic allusion to “Peyton Place” recurs in “Hollywood or Lust,” inviting a comparison between the fictional world created by Grace Metalious and the colorful characters that might be found in Palm Springs. But while readers turned “Peyton Place” into a cultural phenomenon, the same isn’t likely to happen with Julian’s provincial book about small-town politics and uneventful evenings at Toucan’s Tiki Lounge.

John Berendt had great success with “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” because the city of Savannah, Ga., itself became a character in his book alongside all of its charming, eccentric denizens. Julian fails to personify Palm Springs in the same way, choosing instead to stay on the sidelines to provide acerbic commentary with very little insight.

Flight Behavior Takes Terrifying Look at the Butterfly Effect

Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior."

Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior.”

Editor’s note: There isn’t anything inherently gay about this book or its author, unless male readers enjoy some of the sexy descriptions of the male protagonist; but it’s a book with relevance for today’s readers on a very important topic. Plus, I have a problem sticking to themes.

For a novel that is so far from being in the horror genre, Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior” is terrifying — in the way that a burning bush was terrifying to Moses and in the apocalyptic sense that portends the future of mankind.

Writing with the authority of a scientist, which is part of her own past, Kingsolver binds together a parable about climate change with a lazy story about a farming family in Tennessee, the maternal figure Dellarobia of which is a restless housewife who love*s her children fiercely but feels trapped in her station.

At the book’s beginning Dellarobia is attempting to take flight from her sleepy life when she is arrested by a vision on her mountain: millions upon millions of monarch butterflies setting the woods ablaze with a miracle of life in proportions that are biblical. The arrival of God’s creatures sparks a conflict in the tiny Tennessee town between religion, industry and science, like a microcosm of the world that exists today.

While she throws in themes of poverty, poor education and other political footballs, the author concentrates on the greatest challenge facing mankind today, humans’ effect on our planet and she focuses on the progeny of the planet and what might be left behind for them.

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

She makes it readable by juxtaposing an urgency surrounding the displaced butterflies with the story of a modern woman, literally living off the land to feed her husband and children while fighting a compulsion to break away from the life she did not choose for herself.

Kingsolver poses a big “what if” in “Flight Behavior” and when she finally reveals the answer to it, science-fiction becomes science-reality that is chilling and frightening.

Rolling Stone Reporter Provides Behind-the-Scenes Peek of Interviews with Major Stars Including Gay Icons

EnoughcoverpbI LOVED this book. “But Enough About Me: How a Small-Town Girl Went from Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet” is by far the funniest memoir I have ever read and one of the most interesting for those of us who love juicy, behind-the-scenes tidbits about celebrities and all their foibles.

Jancee Dunn recounts the most memorable interviews she has conducted as a reporter for Rolling Stone, including sit-downs with some of the biggest names in the music business– Madonna, Bono, Dolly Parton, Scott Weiland–whom she profiled over the years after landing a job at the magazine in 1989. She started at the bottom as an editorial assistant and worked her way up.

Between her anecdotal and wickedly funny encounters with the stars, Dunn interjects stories from her personal life that are just as hilarious, revealing a Jersey Girl with Southern ancestry who remains awestruck by her position in the big leagues and constantly tamps down her small-town-girl insecurities as she mingles with rock ‘n’ roll royalty.

Truly, one of the funniest passages doesn’t contain any celebrities at all. It’s Dunn’s take on a communal camping trip with a huge group of people sharing the same dumpy quarters, inane activities and improvised meals as they stumble through days of flowing beer and debauchery. On a hayride that feels to her like a forced march, she befriends a girl, suspecting a kindred spirit who is experiencing the same feelings of dread and disgust. She finally maneuvers over the bales of hay, through the drunken revelers in the bouncing carriage to engage the girl, who tells her: “I was once in a car that caught fire. This is worse.”

Jancee Dunn.

Jancee Dunn.

That’s just a taste of the sardonic one-offs that fill this book and have the reader laughing out loud as they turn the pages. And while she exposes the superficial world that insulates megastars, revealing industry secrets of being a a successful celebrity journalist, she also highlights some of her more meaningful interviews with legends such as Barry White, Loretta Lynn and Cher. Toward the end of the book, she waxes nostalgic about the real days of rock ‘n’ roll by comparing back-to-back interviews with Justin Timberlake and Grace Slick, one polished and publicist-approved banter, the other freewheeling, warts-and-all storytelling.

Dunn never loses the sincere voice of the Jersey Girl who, surrounded by excess and outlandish behavior, remains in touch with the important things in her life: home, family and longtime friends.

The paperback begins with more than three pages of blurbs from various publications, including Rolling Stone. They read: “Relentlessly readable,” “an irresistible narrator,” “pop culture served with a side of smarts,” “a touching laugh-out-loud memoir.” None of it is hyperbole. I can’t wait to share this book with others who will devour it with the same relish that I did. A deliciously dishy and often emotional read.