Thursday, October 20, 2011

August Farewell by David G. Hallman

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: iUniverse, Inc.
Pages: 167

In August of 2009, Bill Conklin was diagnosed with stage-four, pancreatic cancer. Only sixteen days later, Bill died. Bill’s partner of thirty-three years, David Hallman, narrates this sixteen-day journey interspersed with vignettes drawn from their rich and varied life together.

For the most part Bill was unconscious during his last weeks, so this memoir is more of David Hallman’s experience of caring for and letting go of his lover after a long and beautiful relationship. This book started as a personal account for David, as he wanted to document the details of those last weeks together before his memory began to fade, and much of it does seem like a personal diary.

I found the book well written with good pacing except for one issue. It is written in present tense. The author states up front that all these events happened in 2009, and then voices his story as if it were happening as he tells it. I found this very jarring, something that bothered me from first page to last.

One thing I found fascinating is that, one week after Bill’s diagnoses, he was bedridden, in much pain, couldn’t eat, couldn’t talk, didn’t even have the strength to suck water through a straw, yet they continued to keep him alive for as long as possible—another nine days of pain. If he were a horse, they would have mercifully shot him. Why, in this day and age, can’t we find the compassion for humans that we have already found for animals?

This is not a pleasant story. It is told with poignancy, humor, affection, and a good deal of tears. But be aware, I found this to be a depressing read. A bright spot is that the author delves into their life together: their commitment to environmental justice, love of the arts, love of traveling, and their deeply felt Christian beliefs.

This is a tale of letting go, a journey through the past to gain the strength to endure the separation. This is not a book I can recommend to all readers. Perhaps to readers who have made similar journeys, or people preparing for their own loss.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bob the Book by David Pratt

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Chelsea Station Editions
Pages: 184

Bob is a book about pre-nineties gay porn, complete with many hot pictures. He is delivered to a Greenwich Village bookstore, where he goes on sale beside another book, Moishe, whose title is Beneath the Tallis: The Hidden Lives of Gay and Bisexual Orthodox Jewish Men. Bob and Moishe fall in love, but are separated by an unlikely buyer.

As Bob journeys through sales tables, used book bins, different owners, and lecture halls, he meets a variety of other books and people, but he’s always hunting for Moishe.

Bob finds himself in a peculiar position; both he and his owner are searching for love. Both seem to find something, but it’s not ideal for either of them. Can Bob, being at the mercy of people, somehow find fulfillment? Can his owner find the same contentment? All I can say is, it’s not easy being a book in love.

This is one of the most delightful stores I’ve read all year, and the fact that it is a debut novel only adds to the pleasure. On the surface it seems like a whimsical love story, both for Bob and his human owner, as well as several other book couples. But under that simplicity, there are some important life lessons to be examined. There is much Zen-like wisdom woven into this enchanting tale, lessons on taking one’s self too seriously, and of striving for things that are not important, just to name a few.

The pace and tone never drags. This story carries the reader along with many funny twists regarding the literature industry. Of course it’s not at all believable, but it is an extremely well constructed love story, both for the books and human characters.

What amazed me most was in the examining these books’ personalities. By giving them human characteristics, the reader clearly sees where humans spin their wheels dealing with unimportant life issues.

Readers who are familiar with the publishing industry will especially appreciate this novel, but all readers can enjoy this wonderfully smart and touching book. Because the main characters are books, it transcends every boundary of gender and sexual orientation, making it an entertaining read for men and women, boys and girls, gay and straight. That’s its genius.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Butterfly Dreaming by Dave Lara & Bud Gundy

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: CreateSpace (Nov. 14th, 2010)
Pages: 334

Banat Frantz is a Jewish boy growing toward manhood in Germany when Adolf Hitler comes to power. At an early age, Banat already feels the animosity directed toward his family. He experiences shame and fear, but doesn’t understand what it is that makes him different from those who hate. His upper-class family is stripped of almost everything before fleeing to Holland, where they think they have escaped Hitler’s grasp. But within a few years the Nazis invade Holland and they are made prisoners and shipped to work camps.

Banat grows into puberty while living in a concentration camp, and what he discovers is that his growing lust is directed at other boys, not girls. By now he knows to hide his feelings of being different than others. But when he meets Dovid, (yes, Dovid with an ‘o’), he falls in love. What starts as an adolescent crush deepens into a consuming love that will sustain Banat through the horrors that await him.

Soon the family is split up, and Banat and his father are shipped to a different camp. Over time they are shipped to several work camps, all the time moving closer to Auschwitz. Banat and Dovid are separated as well. By cunning and trickery, Banat does manage to survive the end of the war, and he goes about trying to track down his splintered family and bring them together again. There are joys and tragedies to be endured, and then the search for Dovid begins. Can Dovid have survived as well? Can the lovers reunite?

This is not an easy story to read, due to the shocking way the Jewish characters are treated by other Europeans. The horrors described both before and in the concentration camps is heartbreaking. But there are joys as well. Even in these brutal conditions and knowing what awaits them, they find love and tenderness, not just with Banat and Dovid, but other characters as well. This story is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, and also of the power of love.

Banat is a perfect character, exhibiting both qualities and faults, as he comes of age and maturity within the most brutal conditions. He must fight for survival, yet with his being gay, he can’t confide in his own family. With death and anguish a constant, he must somehow explore the depths of love, need and joy. And he does so with virtue and morality.

But this story goes far beyond the concentration camps. Once the war is over, Banat must continue to strive in order to reunite his family. This brings both joy and sadness, and in the end grows bitter because he finally comes out to his family. Banat turns away from his parents and continues his search for Dovid. He becomes involved with the emerging gay scene in Paris, and begins to explore his sexuality. But the despair of not finding Dovid eventually drives him across the Atlantic, hoping for a new life in America, and a chance to forget. He finds that new life, but in a most unexpected and beautiful way.

This story is a fascinating inner journey from adolescence to manhood, from innocence to love. As I said, it is a hard story to read, but well worth the time and emotional turmoil. WWII history buffs will especially appreciate this tale, but this is a story everyone can appreciate and grow from.