Here's to You, Zeb Pike

Here’s to You, Zeb Pike
Johanna Parkhurst
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Amazon:

“Fact: When Zebulon Pike attempted to climb what is now known as Pikes Peak, he got stuck in waist-deep snow and had to turn back. That’s the last thing Dusty Porter learns in his Colorado history class before appendicitis ruins his life. It isn’t long before social services figures out that Dusty’s parents are more myth than reality, and he and his siblings are shipped off to live in Vermont with an uncle and aunt they’ve never met.

Dusty’s new life is a struggle. His brother and sister don’t seem to need him anymore, and he can’t stand his aunt and uncle. At school, one hockey player develops a personal vendetta against him, while Emmitt, another hockey player, is making it hard for Dusty to keep pretending he’s straight. Problem is, he’s pretty sure Emmitt’s not gay. Then, just when Dusty thinks things can’t get any worse, his mother reappears, looking for a second chance to be a part of his life.

Somehow Zebulon Pike still got the mountain named after him, so Dusty’s determined to persevere—but at what point in life do you keep climbing, and when do you give up and turn back?”

Wow that’s a lot to cram into a blurb but hey, it’s the publisher’s decision. Here’s to You, Zeb Pike isn’t as doom and gloom as the description makes it seem, in fact, it’s Dusty and his siblings’ optimism and resilience that proves to be the book’s defining features. And boy do they need it, as you can see, they’ve got a lot to deal with. Of course, there’s still plenty of angst, it just comes from places you might not expect. Dusty does acquire a love interest in the latter half of the book (who stars in the semi-sequel, Thanks a Lot, John LeClair), but it’s much more the story of Dusty’s coming-of-age, or, rather, his return-to-age as he learns to cope with the major changes occurring in his life.

I’ve always had a soft spot for stories about foster care or difficult family situations, especially in YA. For starters, it’s heartwarming to see characters find their way to safe and healthy living situations and to be able to do the things their circumstances formerly prevented them from doing. But it’s also nice to read about young characters with problems beyond the usual high school drama/identity crisis sagas. And I don’t mean The Hunger Games either, things can be tough enough without imagining entire dystopias to go along with them. My background was nothing so bad as Dusty’s (thank goodness), but it was different enough that I wanted stories that reflected my experiences. I didn’t have many of those at the time, but reading them as an adult is still a cathartic and affirming experience.

Maurice

Maurice
E. M. Forster
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from Amazon:

“From early adolescence to his college years at Cambridge and into professional life at his father’s firm, Maurice Hall plays the part of the conventional Englishman. All the while, he harbors a secret wish to lose himself from society and embrace who he truly is.

Maurice’s first love, Clive Durham, introduces him to the ancient Greeks who embraced same-sex attraction. But when Clive marries a woman, Maurice is distraught enough to seek a hypnotist who might “cure” him of his homosexuality. In his quest to accept his true self, Maurice must ultimately go against the grain of society’s unspoken rules of class, wealth, and politics.”

Maurice was originally written in 1913, but it would remain unpublished until 1971, a year after Forster’s death. Forster was proud of the novel and shared it with friends, but ultimately believed that the public wasn’t ready for it because he had dared to give the story a happy ending. Generally, it was only possible to write about homosexuality in the early twentieth century as long as the deviant characters were appropriately punished for their transgressions so they could serve as a warning to readers. That’s why Giovanni is executed in Giovanni’s Room (1956), why Stephen ends up alone and suicidal in The Well of Loneliness (1928), and why Jim murders Bob in The City and the Pillar (1948). The history of queer literature is one of miserable, godawful unhappy endings, and that’s why I try to emphasize happier stories on this blog. So Forster was probably right, the public probably would have hated Maurice. Considering how much he had to lose at the time, I can’t say I blame him for choosing not to publish it then.

Maurice has since aged beautifully. It feels like it could have been written today as a work of historical fiction, and the book enjoys a reputation as one of the most approachable and enjoyable works of its era. This may be partly due to Forster’s willingness to disregard social conventions when those conventions obstruct the happiness of his characters. Watching people in older novels grapple with now-antiquated cultural norms can be difficult, not to mention tedious, so it’s such a relief when Forster sets his characters free. Maurice himself also plays a role in the novel’s accessibility. If he were a sensitive, exceptional darling buffeted about by a cruel society, he would have seemed unreal, and the story would have been reduced to a mere protest novel. Instead, Maurice is merely a typical man working to overcome his biases and accept himself, and that’s something a lot of readers can relate to, myself included.

Alcibiades the Schoolboy

Alcibiades the Schoolboy
Antonio Rocco
Difficulty: Medium
Full Text, American Translation (cannot vouch for accuracy)

Published in the year 1652, Alcibiades the Schoolboy is a defense of pederasty, or love between men and pubescent boys, presented in the style of a Platonic dialogue and attributed to the Italian priest Antonio Rocco. The setting is ancient Athens, and the schoolmaster Philotimes, clearly intended to be Socrates, is desperately trying to convince his angelic and well spoken pupil Alcibiades to sleep with him by offering arguments defending the practices of pederasty and sodomy. His major points are that laws are arbitrary and often unjust, that nature gave men urges so they could act on them, and that women are icky and want things from you (putting it nicely). Bookending his argument are long poetic passages extolling the virtues of boys in startlingly explicit detail, even by today’s standards. In fact, the most striking attribute of the whole text is its incredibly frank discussion of sex, both its pleasures and mechanics. Such explicit writing leads me to believe it was also intended to double as pornography. As you might imagine, such a book was not particularly popular with the church, and it was promptly destroyed, with the few surviving copies hidden away for the next 200 years. It wasn’t until 1862 that it would finally be reprinted in the original Italian, before being translated into French in 1866. The novel wouldn’t appear in English until the year 2000, translated by Oxford Professor J. C. Rawnsley, now out of print.

The preface to the 1891 French translation calls it the first homosexual novel, and as far as I know they’re right. How is it that such a historically significant piece of writing has flown almost completely under the radar, not receiving an English translation for almost 350 years? The obvious answer is subject matter, I suppose, Rawnsley didn’t even want his translation published until after his death. But we willingly engage with other pederastic dialogues like Phaedrus and Corydon, though they’re nowhere near as explicit (Phaedrus gets a little steamy though, stop loosening your robe Socrates). It seems like an arbitrary line in the sand to me, but there it is. Erotica and pederasty are only okay as long as they aren’t both present in the same text.

As an argument, Alcibiades the Schoolboy comes off so-so. His points about arbitrary laws and natural urges are reasonable but hardly convincing, certainly not to the early modern church. After all, resisting our urges is pretty much the cornerstone of Christianity. It’s very jarring to hear Christian arguments delivered by Greek characters, especially the invocation of Sodom and Gomorrah, the setting and subject just don’t mix. The allusion to Socrates’ pursuit of Alcibiades is similarly confusing, as Socrates famously eschewed physical love in favor of the spiritual kind (as told by Plato). But for me, what really detracts from the argument is Philotimes’ descent into masturbatory rapture as he goes on and on about the beauty of a boy’s buttocks. Seriously, there are paragraphs upon paragraphs about it. It’s a little difficult to be enthusiastic about his argument when his motivation is so obviously base.

One more strange thing: at one point in the argument, Philotimes claims that it’s good to love young boys because dolphins, yes, dolphins, also love young boys. And he offers no less than three examples. I thought this was a very strange thing to say, and with so much evidence, so I did a little research. It turns out, according to “When A Dolphin Loves A Boy: Some Greco-Roman and Native American Love Stories” by Craig A. Williams, there are at least TEN separate stories in Greek history and myth of dolphins falling in love with boys. And they’re not ambiguous in the slightest. In several of the stories, the dolphin and boy are buried together. In another, a dolphin beaches himself to commit suicide after his boy dies. Apparently dolphins are associated with Dionysus, god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy (among other things), so perhaps Philotimes claim is that these sacred creatures love boys, so it clearly must be a good thing? I have no idea what to do with knowledge of this tradition of interspecies dolphin-boy love so I’m telling everyone. The world needs to know.

The Wild Boys

The Wild Boys
William S. Burroughs
Difficulty: Hard
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Imagine Naked Lunch, but gayer and possibly even more abstract, then you’ve got The Wild Boys. The plot: organized gangs of homosexual warrior boys roam an apocalyptic wasteland doing battle with various military forces in order to bring about the downfall of western civilization. But it might take you two or three read-throughs to piece that all together because Burroughs is all in with his signature surreal style. The story is told in a series of vignettes–or fragments of vignettes–that leap wildly from one subject and style to the next. Most of the time it’s hard to see how they’re connected, and it’s only once you’re solidly into the book that you might be able to get a sense of what’s going on. But it’s not the plot you should read The Wild Boys for, it’s the aesthetic. 

Like a lot of Burroughs other works, The Wild Boys is dripping in color, texture, and bodily fluids. Vivid and trippy sexually charged scenes slide into one another and back again without warning. In one scene a boy dies and then steals the body of another boy by entering him as he cums. In another, several boys masturbate giant penis plants so they can collect the semen to sell at market. Or my personal favorite, the creation of a wild boy, achieved by summoning a spirit and having anal sex with it, creating a physical body for the spirit by ejaculating inside it. I’d like to say these are the more crazy scenes, but no, it’s pretty much all like that. Despite how weird and pronographic the book is, The Wild Boys was surprisingly influential upon its publication. Most notably, David Bowie’s character Ziggy Stardust was based largely on Burroughs description of the wild boys. Duran Duran’s song “The Wild Boys” was also directly inspired by the novel.

I’ll admit, reading this novel the first time I mostly felt irritated by how incomprehensible it was. In retrospect this was an unfair reaction. Naked Lunch was much easier for me, but that’s because Naked Lunch received much more public attention than The Wild Boys ever did. I knew what to expect with Naked Lunch, I knew what I was getting into and how I might interpret it. Not so with The Wild Boys. But in the years since reading it I’ve come to appreciate it much more. I’ve never read anything else quite like it, and some of the scenes really stick out in my memory, for better or worse.

Taji From Beyond the Rings

Taji From Beyond the Rings
R. Cooper
Difficulty: Medium
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Blurb from Amazon:

“The Interplanetary Trade Coalition has not been welcomed with open arms by the Sha Empire. Isolated at the far edge of a distant system, the Sha are distrustful of outsiders, and previous I.P.T.C. diplomatic missions have ended with members imprisoned or dead. But, if pushed enough, the I.P.T.C. will overrun the planet to take what it wants. The situation is already precarious when student linguist Taji Ameyo is conscripted to translate for the newest I.P.T.C. ambassador. Taji, used to being alone, has never learned to hide his heart or his opinions, and the controlled Sha nobility regard little, outspoken human Taji with fascination, calling him shehzha.

Mysterious, coveted figures, so devoted to their lovers that pleasing them is a test of Shavian honor, shehzha are usually kept out of public view. Taji is a nobody, hardly alluring, and yet it’s not long before his runaway mouth gets him entangled in imperial politics, and he has no one rely on but the soldiers assigned to protect him—one soldier, more than the others.

At the mercy of both a greedy trade coalition and a proud empire, Taji has to determine what it means to be shehzha, while surrounded by ambitious noble families and a sharp-eyed emperor, and hopefully learn enough about the Sha to keep him and everyone he cares about alive.”


I’ve read a couple of R. Cooper’s books and found them to be enjoyable, but I had no idea she was capable of a novel like this. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read something this good from the self-publish/small press M/M community before, except for Klune’s Murmuration, and this one might be better. Taji From Beyond the Rings is a rigorous, anthropological science-fiction romance that repackages radical ideas of sex and gender first found in works like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand in the form of an accessible genre novel. The Sha society depicted in Taji is creative, consistent, and believable, and so are the interactions between them and the I.P.T.C. emissaries of which the eponymous protagonist is a member. Cooper uses the complex, perilous challenge of learning and navigating a foreign culture as a versatile plot device that grants the story natural momentum, something many romance writers struggle with when they try to force their plots to replicate desired romance genre conventions. The linguistic mystery of shehzha, an enigmatic, untranslatable rank in Shavian culture, was particularly engaging. The experience of constantly redefining the term as Taji discovers new information reproduces for the reader the experience that Taji is having in the story. Like him, we can only speculate on the meaning of Sha words and symbols and adapt when we find out we’re wrong. Readers less familiar with science fiction as a genre may find this experience disconcerting at first, but becomes easier to process with time.

Interwoven with all this detailed and complex science fiction is an interspecies romance I can only describe as “mushy.” There’s lots of pining and angst, stoic handsome space marines, several explicit sex scenes, the works. But where these elements might feel melodramatic or just plain silly in a typical romance novel, they’re all quite natural in the context of Cooper’s extensive worldbuilding. One Amazon review wrote, “Without the author’s storytelling skills and imaginative vision, this book could easily have been shelved under the overheated and unhinged section for teenage wet dreams.” The reviewer’s not wrong, Cooper is working with some very delicate sexual tropes that before now I would have said could not be done tastefully, yet there they are in all their erotic and sensual glory. I’ll admit, some of them made me a little uncomfortable, but that’s only because they challenge values western culture holds in high esteem, like agency, independence, and self-reliance. Through the Sha, Cooper convincingly argues for the beauty and bravery to be found in relinquishing those ideals in order to become closer with another. As I write, it occurs to me that this is the principle behind BDSM, though I don’t think this particular story could be described as that. Anyway, it’s not often that I come away from a pulpy genre like romance feeling like I’ve learned something, so I feel very fortunate to have come across Taji From Beyond the Rings and enthusiastically recommend it to others.

The Starless Sea

The Starless Sea
Erin Morgenstern
Difficulty: Hard
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Blurb from Amazon:

“Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth. What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life.”

We get a lot of retellings and reimaginings of classic fairy tales and myths, but not so many attempts at creating new ones. It’s no easy task, and the experience of reading Starless Sea is a quiet reminder of how much we rely on existing narratives and motifs to make sense of the world. Chasing bee, key, and sword symbols across a tapestry of separate but converging stories is an exercise in forbearance, resigning oneself to general disorientation as Morgenstern patiently works her way toward a unified narrative. But the final product is worth the effort. Readers of The Night Circus will already be familiar with her signature slow-moving, heavily visual brand of magical realism, and Starless Sea has it in spades. The mystery builds in momentum across the book’s ~500 pages and in the second half escalates into a full-on magical thriller, one all the more satisfying for the work both reader and author put in laying the foundation in the first half.

If the Amazon reviews are anything to go by, Starless Sea is probably not for everyone. It seems to have sharply divided its readers between those who found it pretentious and meandering, and those who think it’s an absolute masterpiece that trumps Night Circus. The key difference I observe between Morgenstern’s first and second books is the amount of effort she demands from her audience. Compared to Starless Sea, Night Circus was brisk, to the point, and heterosexual; all the mainstream reader had to do sit back and enjoy. But Starless Sea demands a bit of patience and a bit of work as Morgenstern sets the stage. And I’ll admit, sometimes it felt like too much. Constantly changing stories was a real momentum killer which, in a novel of this length, can be demoralizing. But her descriptive prose managed to make the experience a net positive, and by the time the action ramped up, I was completely on board.

As a bonus, enjoy this shrewd and penetrating critique from a top Amazon review:

“I also did not like the homosexual element. Homosexuals are fine with me. They are as normal as anyone, but I just don’t want to read about them. Give me/boy girl stories please?”

The Waves

The Waves
Virginia Woolf
Difficulty: Very Hard
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Written almost entirely in soliloquies delivered by the novel’s six main characters, The Waves is a dreamy, poetic, and extremely ambitious exploration of people, their interior lives, and their relationships with each other. The novel is divided into seven sections spanning the course of the characters’ lives from childhood to infirmity with each episode bookending brief descriptions of a shoreline and its waves over the course of a day, and the only plot event of note is the death of a seventh, voiceless character with whom the other six were friends. Of particular importance to understanding the novel is the recognition that the speakers in the book are not intended to be fully realized characters, but rather, as Woolf clarified in her diary, different aspects of a single consciousness. This results in somewhat unusual, even surreal perspectives from some of the speakers. Bernard, for example, is obsessed with storytelling and how we go about connecting with other people, and it is only briefly alluded to that he has a wife and kids, an entire life that we learn almost nothing about. Susan, on the other hand, dwells on motherhood and nature to the exclusion of everything else, even her husband. The final product is masterful and utterly unique; there is nothing quite like The Waves in all of English literature.

I identified much more strongly with some characters than others. Neville is the most obvious, since he spends much of his life falling in love with a series of men and composing romantic poetry about them. His segments were some of the most challenging for me to interpret, but I chalk that up to my general inexperience with poetry. Louis was also particularly striking, since he is largely concerned with his status as an outsider (his father is an Australian banker) and finding social acceptance. I felt that I was on more familiar ground with him because his concerns were material, such as anxiety about his accent or economic standing. Lastly, Rhoda also spoke very clearly to me, though I wish she hadn’t. She is extremely introverted and seems to view herself and her life as insubstantial and insignificant to the point where she struggles to make any meaningful connection with reality. It was hard to read at times. The other characters, Bernard, Susan, and Jinny, were all very interesting in their own ways, but it was really the former three that captured my attention.

The Waves is best experienced by going with the flow, not attempting to understand each and every word and image, but just letting the whole thing wash over you like, well, a wave. It’s usually a love-it-or-hate-it book, and readers should be able to tell which category they fall under after only ten or twenty pages; what you see is what you get. For what it’s worth, I found it to be a staggeringly beautiful book, and I don’t typically enjoy poetry that much. It seems to me that Woolf was attempting to convey some fundamental truth about the human experience using this unique structure and, I thought, failed completely. As beautiful as the prose poetry was, I could never quite manage to completely translate it into something coherent, I could only ever feel and intuit what she was trying to say. But that’s okay, because the overall message I took from the story was that our individual experiences are so unique that they can never be fully communicated to each other, and that’s simultaneously tragic and magnificent.