Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gordan The Giraffe by Bruce Brown, Illustrated by A. Shelton

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Aarcana
Pages: 49

Gordan is a young giraffe living in the secret kingdom known as Ugladunga. His playmates all shun him until one day Gary invites him to play the game of Mulunga Doo. The other Giraffes laugh at them, because Mulunga Doo is a game a male giraffe can only play with a female giraffe. When Gordon cries to his mother, she tells him not to worry, he has a big heart and can play the game with anyone he chooses. But when the others try to trick Gordan and Gary into a dangerous situation, their plan backfires putting the perpetrators in peril, and only Gordan can rescue them. Is his heart big enough to forgive and save them? Of course, this is after all a children’s tale.

One of the wonderful benefits of reviewing books is being exposed to a wide variety of genres and writing styles, and every once in a blue moon getting the opportunity to read a children’s book with an LGBTQ theme. I’ve had the privilege of reading several and I have found them all delightful. Gordan the Giraffe was no exception.

It is a simple storyline with equally simple words, yet with an underlying message of acceptance of people who are different, because even people who are different can be brave and selfless. A wonderful message for kids. One of the things that sets this book well above the norm is the colorful and beautiful artwork. Like many kids books, there are plenty of pictures to tell the story, and is one I would be proud to hang on my walls as art.

The child inside me found this book to be an enchanting read—both mentally and visually—and I highly recommend it to all kids, and the kids inside of other adults.

This book is not released yet, and I've been given no buy link.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov by Paul Russell

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Cleis Press
Pages: 374

Sergey Nabokov was born into a wealthy family in pre-communists Russia. His father was a respected member of the government. His older brother would grow to become the brilliant writer, Vladimir Nabokov. While enjoying a luxurious lifestyle in Russia, Sergey grew up in the shadow of his older brother. As Sergey matured into puberty, it became apparent that he was gay and a bit of a dandy, which, as far as his family was concerned, pushed him deeper into the shadow cast by Vladimir.

Both brothers were forced to flee their mother Russia when the Bolshevik revolution brought the communists to power. They traveled to England where they received an education at Cambridge University, and then settled in Paris. Sergey became known to the artist crowd of pre-war Europe, hobnobbing with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Magnaus Hirschfield, and Nijinsky. But as his finances dwindled, Sergey became more and more desperate, turning to opium for a bit of comfort and living off the generosity of men. As war with Germany loomed, Vladimir fled to the United States while Sergey ended up in isolation in war-torn Berlin. Sergey died after spending two years in a Nazi concentration camp for the crime of being gay and for speaking out against the Nazi regime.

This is a meticulously researched novel, which recreates the rich and changing world of pre-WWII Europe with exquisite detail. The novel starts in Berlin during the decline of Nazi Germany, with most of the novel seen through flashbacks. Russell takes the sparse details of Sergey’s life and weaves it into a fictional memoir that is both convincing and inspiring.

What struck me most about this work was the lavish, beautiful prose. I’ve read few modern novels that can compare. The voice Paul Russell captures is both lush and believable. The detail in the scenes he paints is remarkable.

I did have one issue with this novel. Russell committed the one sin that a novelist should never allow—he often bored me. There was simply so much detail to wade through that, however beautiful, slowed the action down to a crawl. Vast quantities of detail, in my opinion, added little to the storyline. The emotional highs weren’t very high, the lows not so low. Through vast sections of the story I found myself wanting to skip ahead to the next chapter, or the one after that.

This is a riches to rags story, contrasting the two brothers’ lives. It is ultimately a novel about a vulnerable boy who, through adversity and a few bad choices, grew into a courageous man. It is a remarkable work.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Simple Treasures by Alan Chin

Reviewer: Edward C. Patterson
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 136

When I want to curl up with a beautifully written, heartfelt tale of redemption, I come to Alan Chin -- he's the ticket. And again, with Simple Treasures, he has authored a stylish work of depth. I'm Native American, so I was fascinated with his treatment of tribal mysticism, especially in regard to the afterlife. He hit it right on the head. Life and death are leaves fallen from the same tree. If hope is what we sow, our lives are redeemed. It quite took my breath away.

Simple is not a simple man. He has a past, which he records into journals because of his amnesia, which resets his memory banks each day. Like his mind, he's a drifter, but we soon learn that although he copes with daily existence, he has heaps of hope nestled within his self-doubts. Simple is cast into an almost untenable employment situation where he must interact with other damaged souls -- Jude, Emmett and Lance, all in need of Simple's brand of healing -- a course of growth as old as the hills. All the emotions dance through this tale -- love, self-doubt, rage, greed and pride. Simple is the tie that binds them all. I wished the tale was longer, so I could linger at that dusty haven of a ranch where these souls intermingle.

Alan Chin's strength is character development, although it goes beyond that. Each character is set on a rolling tide, which hooks into an aspect of the main theme. The tone recalls CasteƱeda with a hint of King's The Gunslinger, although Mr. Chin's style is uniquely warm -- his story telling subtly tugging at the heartstrings. I really came to care for all the characters -- even the chief bum of the story. I love the way the characters developed, overlapping each other, heading for the same point, but then hurtling to different destinations. Simple Treasures is superbly written. I highly recommended it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review: Our Time: Breaking The Silence of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by Josh Seefried

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Pages: 191

Our Time is an interesting, sometimes fascinating, often emotional compilation of first-person essays from gay and lesbian military personnel who had to hide their sexuality while serving in the US Armed Forces. It marks the end of nearly two decades of silence, and finally gives voice to the queer men and women who put their lives on the line in service to America under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Each story is only two to four pages long, a snapshot of the internal and external struggle that these service people had to live each hour of every day. Almost all branches of the service are represented, and these stories come from officers as well as enlisted personnel. These accounts detail the abuse—physical and mental—endured at the hands of their fellow soldiers and superiors, as well as the hardships suffered by the family members and partners of lgbt soldiers.

Now that these divisive policies are a thing of the past, gay and lesbian service people no longer need to live under the conditions outlined in these personal stories, but this book stands as a significant historical account of what was a legal injustice in this country, told by the people who suffered under the discrimination.

Each personal account records the unique experience of that service person, yet common themes weave through each of these stories:

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Walker writes, “I could not list my partner as a dependent on any forms. What were my rights—what were his rights—if I was hurt or incapacitated or killed? He would not even get notification if the worst happened. He was not eligible for my pension, benefits, visitation rights, counseling, or even the flag from my coffin if I died.”

Petty Officer Second Class Alex Johnson writes, “Part of my preparations for deployment included establishing guidelines for communicating with my significant other. We had to devise a way to hide the true nature of our relationship. So we created Yahoo e-mail addresses under fake names, and we developed a code to mask sensitive language. While I was deployed, if I wished to tell him I loved him, I would say, ‘One four three.’ We put other similar expressions in code so we could speak “freely” to each other.”

Warrant Officer Tania Dunbar writes: “For the past eleven years I have had to conceal my family from my friends. Soldiers, with whom I sweat, bleed, and cry, can’t ever meet the woman I love. Soldiers who depend on me for sound judgment and advice can never know who I myself go to when I need advice or solace. Friends who would die for me can’t ever meet the person who makes me want to live. Don’t get me wrong—there are a few soldiers who know I am gay, but it takes a long time to learn if you can trust someone with a secret that can ruin your career. So I don’t make friends easy, I don’t go to military functions very often. For me, home life cannot mix with work life.”

My one minor complaint about this book is the repetitiveness. There are over forty stories, and many parrot similar experiences. Still, throughout these many accounts the thing that shines through is the bravery and selflessness of these soldiers who defend our liberties while their own freedom was denied.

This is a significant book, both personally and politically. Josh Seefried, an Air Force officer and codirector of OutServe, has done a splendid job of presenting these voices of anguish and struggle and hope.