AIDS, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Gender Identity, Historical Fiction, immigrant literature, Iranian-American, LGBT, pride month, Sexuality, Young Adult

Thoughts on Two LGBTQ Pride Reads

Like A Love Story

Abdi Nazemian’s young adult historical fiction novel, Like A Love Story, is the fourth LGBTQ-themed book I’ve read this month. Like the others, it has not disappointed. Every good coming-out-story, like every good coming-of-age story from Little Women to The Catcher in the Rye, manages to do this, to balance a personal, individual story with a unique experience in time and place and the larger issues this entails. What the author does best in this novel is to integrate powerful and accurate portrayals of two difficult events, the Iran revolution and the AIDS crisis, into a story about an immigrant boy’s coming-of-age and coming out. Magically, it is all held together by the unlikeliest but most appropriate of figures: Madonna.

Reza is that immigrant boy. He arrives in New York City, by way of Canada, after his family flees Iran. Reza has always been the good boy, the one his mother can depend on, while his older sister has always been the rebel and troublemaker. But when Reza meets the beautiful punk photographer, Art, and his best friend Judy, everything changes. Reza is thrust into a world that values independence and individuality, and into a sphere that is fighting desperately to survive. Judy’s uncle Stephen is dying of AIDS, and through his example of activism, friendship, patience, and counter-pop culture, Reza, Judy, and Art learn to thrive, to live, and to love.

Like A Love Story is not only a beautifully-written young adult novel, but it is a historically and socially important one. Nazemian reminds the reader just how hard gay and lesbian people had to fight to win their freedoms and equal protections, a fight that continues to this day and that is constantly under attack. The author includes several important historical lessons, weaving them seamlessly into the story of these characters’ lives, so that readers who give this work a chance will find themselves learning critical history that is often overlooked, forgotten, or under-appreciated, while at the same time enjoying an excellent story. At the heart of it are themes of friendship, forgiveness, and first loves, as well as first losses and the reality of mourning. These very human themes are so universal that the reader, while connecting with the fictional of it all, might find themselves relating to a story well beyond their own lived experience.

This is one of the most important and illuminating LGBTQ novels published in recent memory.

Symptoms of Being Human

The fifth book I read for Pride Month is Jeff Garvin’s The Symptoms of Being Human, a young/new adult novel about a gender fluid protagonist’s coming-out experience. Riley Cavanaugh’s father is a conservative politician in a conservative Orange County, California district, in the middle of a re-election campaign. Riley’s mother is kind and well-meaning, but much of her time is devoted to her duties as a politician’s spouse. Just as the election season is heating up, Riley suffers a kind of panic attack at an important event, after which they are hospitalized for attempted suicide. To ease some of the tension, Riley transfers out of her private Catholic school, where they were tormented, to a public school, where they hope to be better treated. Unfortunately, high school is still high school, conservative areas are still conservative areas, and plans often go sour.

While Riley struggles to figure out who they are, some days feeling like a girl and some days like a boy, and other days not like either one, they also navigate the process of healing from self-harm, dealing with anxiety, hiding a powerful secret from their parents and, let’s face it, an entire district that has the Cavanaugh family under its microscope, and trying to make friends, or at least avoid making enemies, at a new school. Any one of these conflicts would be difficult but trying to deal with all of them simultaneously is beyond unlucky. To help, Riley’s therapist suggests that they start a blog and share privately and anonymously what cannot be shared publicly. To write is Riley’s true therapy, and as it turns out, they are very good at it. Ironically, this talent is what causes the largest crisis of all.

Somehow, Riley finds themselves with a popular blog that only grows in popularity as its presence is picked-up by one of the largest LGBTQ community websites online. Riley receives thousands and then tens of thousands of followers and is bombarded with comments of praise, questions for advice, and plenty of hate mail, too. Eventually, Riley’s identity is discovered, right around the time some of the advice they have given to a transgender teen goes terribly wrong, and suddenly they are thrust, with their secrets, into the glaring spotlight that is a political election season.

The major climax itself did feel unnecessary to me, in an almost troubling way. In my reading, the event felt manufactured to fit a gap in the construction of the narrative, rather than necessarily and organically manifested by the sequence of the story itself. It is also a device so often used in stories of sex/gender diversion that, at this point, it has become cliché. This is not to say the problem is not real, because it is very real and all too common, but the introduction and handling of it (and particularly the “fall out”) are even more important for that reason. This is the one element that pulled me out of an otherwise truly engaging, interesting, and important work that deals with gender fluidity, family, hate crimes, coming-of-age, and mental health.

One of the most incredible things about Symptoms of Being Human is that the author manages to treat Riley Cavanaugh’s gender fluidity with complete honesty throughout the course of the narrative. It is never revealed whether the protagonist was born biologically male or female, nor what their parents assume to be Riley’s sex or gender. This is an impressive feat. The story is well-paced, moving slowly and thoughtfully through the complex areas, then speeding up rapidly during moments of intensity. I was able to read the entire thing over the course of one round-trip flight, and rarely did I want to stop to put it down.


I’m currently reading Jane DeLynn’s DON JUAN IN THE VILLAGE, which will be my 6th book for Pride month (this one features a lesbian protagonists sexual experiences around the world), completing my planned reads for the month, though I hope to get one more snuck in under the wire. DON JUAN is also a book on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge List. Check out my thoughts on earlier Pride Month reads, ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS as well as GEMINI and HOLD MY HAND.

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AIDS, Edmund White, Friendship, Gay Lit, GLBT, Green Carnation Prize, New York, Sexuality

Review: Jack Holmes and His Friend by Edmund White (The Green Carnation Prize)

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This is Book #1 for our Green Carnation Prize reading project.  For more information on the project and on the Green Carnation Prize itself, please visit This Post.

About the Book:

Format: Hardcover

Published: January 1st, 2012

Publisher: Bloomsbury UK

Description:

“Jack Holmes and Will Wright arrive in New York in the calm before the storm of the 1960s. Coworkers at a cultural journal, they soon become good friends. Jack even introduces Will to the woman he will marry. But their friendship is complicated: Jack is also in love with Will. Troubled by his subversive longings, Jack sees a psychiatrist and dates a few women, while also pursuing short-lived liaisons with other men. But in the two decades of their friendship, from the first stirrings of gay liberation through the catastrophe of AIDS, Jack remains devoted to Will. And as Will embraces his heterosexual sensuality, nearly destroying his marriage, the two men share a newfound libertinism in a city that is itself embracing its freedom.

Moving among beautifully delineated characters in a variety of social milieus, Edmund White brings narrative daring and an exquisite sense of life’s submerged drama to this masterful exploration of friendship, sexuality, and sensibility during a watershed moment in history.”

-From Goodreads.com.

My Thoughts:

Reading Jack Holmes and His Friend is, for me, like visiting an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while.  In years gone-by, I have read and enjoyed other White novels, including A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty.  As with any reunion, though, one notices certain differences.  For instance, the two books read previously are both semi-autobiographical (or, as I would prefer to call them, creative non-fiction).  This one, though, is a bit more difficult to figure out.  The primary character, Jack, is a gay man with aversions to homosexuality.  I actually saw quite a bit of myself in him (at first – but only at first!), which was fun, as I usually do not identify at all with fictional gay characters.

Jack has a difficult time coming to terms with is sexuality, though he does eventually accept himself, after attempting, through physical action, therapy, and other methods to “fix” himself and become heterosexual.  He also struggles his entire life with being in love with the man (Will) who becomes his best friend.  Some readers have found this relationship cliché, but I would argue that 1) something is not cliché simply because it happens often in real life and 2) White handles this yearning, in Jack, with a sense of realism that is not often found in these types of situations—it does not feel like a “puppyish” type of unrequited love, as might be found in YA books.

Readers should also be prepared for quite a bit of masterfully crafted erotic segments, both heterosexual and homosexual.  White has always portrayed sexuality and sexual situations in a naked (no pun intended) uninhibited way, and that certainly still holds true.  Readers who are expecting a purely “gay” tale, though, will be in for a surprise, as the heterosexual escapades seem, to me, just as accurately and intimately detailed as the homosexual ones.

What I find most appealing about the story, though, is its temporal reach.  The novel spans decades and it is fascinating to watch how the friendship between Jack & Will changes over time (as well as how they themselves change), but also to witness the important historical events and movements that take place, particularly the AIDS epidemic and how it impacted the gay community of New York.  I did find Jack’s “growth” a bit contrived and forced – I will leave the impetus for that growth out of this review, so readers can discover and evaluate it for themselves; but, I for one would have liked to see that development come from a “purer” place (if that can be said to exist).

Some of the difficulty of this book is in its structure.  While the prose is beautiful, the back-and-forth narration, from Jack’s perspective (but in third-person), to Will’s perspective, and then reversed again, is a bit odd and distracting.  I understand that White wanted the reader to relate closely to both the gay and straight characters, to experience their world through the eyes of both friends, but I wonder if a simpler, consistent third-person narrator might have been more effective in serving this purpose.

Would I recommend this book?  I would, indeed.  Is it worthy of The Green Carnation Prize?  Well, fortunately, that is not for me to decide!  I do see how and why this book made its way onto the short list.  White might be breaking-ground with his look at adult male relationships, here.  Can a gay man and a straight man be best friends?  Absolutely.  But if that gay man happens to be in love (obsessed) with his friend?  Complications!  Those situations and complications do happen, though, and they have not yet been extensively explored in fiction.  Although its structure and style might leave a bit to be desired, Jack Holmes and His Friend absolutely has a place on the shelf and adds a certain something to the canon of gay literature.  It is also an interesting read for those interested in cultural studies (particularly 1960s/70s New York City), the nature of friendship, and sexuality.

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Up Next in Our Series on the Green Carnation Prize Short-List:

December 4th: Scenes from Early Life – Philip Hensher (Ana of Things Mean A Lot)

December 5th: A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (Mat of MatLee Reviews)

December 6th: Carry the One by Carol Anshaw (Cass of Bonjour Cass!)

December 7thMoffie by Andrew Carl Van Der Merwe (No review scheduled – please comment if you would like to read/review this book for our project!)

December 10th: Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Before he Stole Me Ma by Kerry Hudson (Jodie of Book Gazing)

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