Growing up in the 80s I really had no awareness of the spread of Aids in America. One of my first memories of hearing about Aids was in science class at school where my teacher Mr Marble told everyone that it’s the gays who were responsible for spreading this disease. It was only during my teenage years in the 90s when I came out and befriended other gay people that I became more knowledgeable about the virus. It’s a sad fact that some of the people I was closest to in my younger years are now HIV+. With an estimated 35 million people having died from Aids and another 37 million people currently living with it, this is something which affects everyone but particularly people in the gay community. I was aware that for many years there was a huge stigma attached to it and I saw the documentary by the same name as this book, but only now having read David France’s masterful nonfiction book “How to Survive a Plague” do I fully comprehend what a courageous few activists and scientists did to help educate the public, change the policies of the government and pharmaceutical industry and bring together an afflicted community overrun by fear.

David France is a journalist who arrived in New York City at the end of the 70s just as the virus was starting to rapidly spread in the gay community. In this book he gives a detailed and comprehensive account of the spread of Aids and the way it affected society. He does this through many personal stories of doctors, activists, politicians, businessmen, researchers and HIV+ individuals which bring their struggle to life as they combat a system gripped by prejudice. It’s truly shocking how the institutionalized homophobia of the government and community leaders showed a blatant indifference to the thousands of gay men infected with HIV across the country who died over the course of the 1980s. France makes it vividly apparent how this led to innumerable personal tragedies from people who hid their status until their deaths to people so terrified of contracting HIV they became celibate: “In countless ways, survival, unexpected as it was, proved as hard to adjust to as the plague itself.” But he also shows how this galvanized parts of the community to come together to literally fight for their lives (albeit with many disagreements along the way).

France recounts how Reagan and his government maintained a shocking level of silence about Aids for many years. It was only when the actor Rock Hudson and an anemic boy who received an HIV+ blood transfusion went public about their status that the country at large started to take real notice and action about Aids. But, even then, an insufficient amount of money, time and expertise was being applied to combat it. It’s horrifying the lack of funding given to Aids research, care and prevention because of institutionalized prejudices. For instance, the negligence of mayor of NYC Ed Koch meant that “In the thirty months of plague, a time in which 1,340 New Yorkers were diagnosed and 773 were already gone, Koch had spent just $24,500 on AIDS. In the same time frame, San Francisco had allocated and spent more than $4 million on care and prevention.” Across the country policy was being shaped by the stigma attached to the disease and prejudices against gay people: “In 1985, twenty states debated legislation for quarantining or otherwise controlling people with AIDS and suspected carriers.” This book really makes it apparent how the institutional response set an example which turned people against trying to understand the disease and the gay community. It led to rampant homophobia which condemned huge groups of people who were already painfully suffering.

It was only through the concerted action from some of the people cited in “How to Survive a Plague” that society at large began treating people afflicted with Aids with compassion rather than scorn. In some instances, France recorded verbatim rousing speeches in public forums which came from a place of passionate personal emotion as much as from a place of clear-sighted truth about the outlandish bigotry of the system. This includes a heartrending and inspiring speech by Darrell Yates Rist which he delivered at a town hall meeting at a Methodist church in Greenwich Village. I know that his words are going to stick with me.

David France’s powerful and emotional book not only pays rightful tribute to the heroic acts of people who cared for those affected by Aids, but sets a benchmark for how we should all be active and engaged citizens. Have a look at this article to see why we still need to be vocal about combating Aids. Given the new conservative governments we’ll be living under in both America, Britain and other parts of the world, it’s more important than ever that we learn how to engage our politicians and decision-makers to look out for the welfare of all people – particularly those afflicted with Aids. Please don’t be intimidated by the length of this book; it’s relentlessly engaging on many levels. “How to Survive a Plague” reveals an incredibly important part of our history that should never be forgotten.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid France

Help! I’m getting that end-of-year panicky feeling that I haven’t read enough this year. Yes, I read a lot but when the best books of the year lists start rolling out I’m consumed with guilt that I haven’t had time to read half the books I’ve wanted to. Does anyone else get this feeling? I know it partly comes from a worry that when I make my own best books of the year list at the end of December I’ll have missed out on some vital book everyone agrees is genius. I know I’ll have the rest of my life to read these books, but I do find it hard to fight the desire to lock myself in a room for months and not emerge till I’ve read them all. So have a good look at this photo of books published in 2016 and let me know which ones you think I should prioritize reading before the end of the year.

Some books such as Sarah Perry’s “The Essex Serpent”, Megan Bradbury’s “Everyone is Watching” and Mia Gallagher’s “Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland” I’ve been purposely saving because I have a fantasy of snuggling up in a comfy chair drinking endless cups of tea reading them while the winter storms rage outside my window. But the truth is December always gets really busy with finishing work before the holidays and meeting up with friends - so I never get as much reading time as I hope I’ll get. My strategy is to finish my Christmas shopping early so I can stay inside reading while everyone else climbs over each other in the shops – we’ll see how well I do!

Please comment letting me know what you think I should read or what have been your favourite books of the year that I should definitely read.

I also made a video about these and a few other books I acquired recently:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sMGfPH4jjo

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Every family has their own social rules and ways of communicating with each other. Often things are left unsaid or hidden, but the way each family works around these areas of silence is unique. As a terminally ill man only in his 30s, Patrick is at a stage where he doesn’t need to mince his words. He’s laid up in a hospital where the nurses quietly recognize he’s close to death. When family members such as his mother Sarah, his sister Margaret or her husband Robert come to visit he makes it very clear whether they are wanted or not. The novel is framed around the mystery of a missing local girl and her mother’s subsequent suicide. However, the majority of this novel is concerned with the different points of view of this Northern Irish family through three generations, how the Troubles impacted them personally and patterns of abuse which trickle down their bloodline. It shows how at this crucial stage in his life Patrick chooses to be radically honest. This novel artfully gets at the subtleties of family life: what’s left unspoken and the impact this has on relations over time.

Whenever a painting is described in a novel I’m reading I like to go on a pilgrimage to actually view this work of art myself whenever possible. This happened when I read Ali Smith’s novel “How to be Both” which led me to The National Gallery to see a painting by Francesco del Cossa. In “Inch Levels” there is an emotional confrontation between Patrick and his sister Margaret when he’s visiting her in London and they take a trip to Tate Britain. Here they see Pegwell Bay, a 19th century painting by William Dyce. So I went to see this painting for myself one morning. It feels significant to this novel for the way the painter portrays a family on a seaside trip engaged in their own activities. Many scenes in the novel (including a trip to a coastal area that gives this book its title) are described in a similar way where each member of the family is entirely consumed in their own world of emotion and aren’t able to connect with the family members around them. It’s haunting the way the painting suggests a family that is unified in their activity, but psychologically distant from one another.

A crucial character at the centre of this novel is a woman named Cassie. She’s an orphan who enters the family when Sarah was a girl and her mother died. Rather than find a new wife to help keep up his household, her father chooses to take in this girl who is described as simplistic and may suffer from some form of autism. She forms a crucial kind of centre for the family and sometimes becomes a confidant for the things which the rest of the family can’t confess to one another. There are also some wonderful touches of humour she brings – such as a scene when Margaret and Patrick are children stealing from the kitchen’s treat jar (which are treats meant for a pet). It’s interesting the way she offers a perspective on the family to the reader – even if she doesn’t often make her opinions known to those around her.

with William Dyce's painting Pegwell Bay at Tate Britain

with William Dyce's painting Pegwell Bay at Tate Britain

The changing political climate of the country serves as a backdrop for several parts of the novel. Sometimes characters are direct witnesses to conflict such as the Bogside Massacre and other times larger events make little personal impact such as a scene of national independence where Sarah finds “Her mind strayed from history: she worried about the stew Cassie had made and left for tea; gone too long and it would dry up.” Hegarty is skilful in the way he describes these larger events being absorbed into every day life such as frequently bombings where it’s felt “It was abnormal and it was normal, all at the same time.” It gives a powerful sense of the way we are both connected to and outside of the history we inhabit.

“Inch Levels” is a novel which becomes quietly absorbing over time as the intricacies of this family’s life and their relationships become clear. Rather than create scenes of high drama, Hegarty conveys deep levels of emotion through what is left unsaid and unacknowledged in the cramped parameters of family life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNeil Hegarty

Here is Naomi’s next review of another outstanding book shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times/Peter Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award. When I first read this book of poetry last year I was so struck by its distinct direct voice and connected so strongly with McMillan’s original perspective that it became one of my favourite books of the year. If you want to read my review of ‘Physical’ click here.

 

Since the publication of his debut poetry collection Physical, Andrew McMillan has been hailed as the poet of masculinity. It was interesting to be aware of this approaching the collection as a feminist and – if I may be so bold – I’d dare to say that McMillan is also a feminist, at least to the extent that he understands that patriarchal ideas of masculinity are as damaging to men as they are to women.

The collection’s divided into three sections. In the first, also titled ‘physical’, McMillan explores what it means to be male in the 21st century, alongside experiences of loving relationships and one night stands. In ‘Strongman’ the narrator bench presses his nephew asking ‘what is masculinity if not taking the weight/of a boy and straining it from oneself?’ while conceding that his own attempt is one ‘not even a minor Greek would see as fit to sculpt’. While in ‘The Men Are Weeping in the Gym’, McMillan creates a picture of those who do sculpt themselves ‘and because they have built themselves/as statues this must mean that God/has entered them’ but juxtaposes this with the vulnerability that lies beneath, created with an image of the muscle tearing ‘itself/from itself’.

McMillan excels in moving from the general to the specific. In ‘Urination’ (the poem he tells us at the Young Writer of the Year Award bloggers’ event his mum has asked him never to read again), the narrator begins by describing the potential horror of bumping someone at the urinals, leading to thoughts of the times the bathroom is shared in intimate settings and the specific moment when he takes ‘the whole of him in your hand/and feel the water moving through him/and knowing that this is love…’. It’s these moments when he writes of love – whether of a one night stand in ‘Just Because I Do This, Doesn’t Mean’ where ‘the kisses that wanted to stay for longer than a night’; or a lover who’s with someone else in ‘If It Wasn’t for the Nights’: ‘if it wasn’t for the nights       Steffan       I’d come home’; or the rescued relationship in ‘Choke’ ‘we talked ourselves together’; or the break-up in ‘Today’

today    you will break the life of someone
or you’ll break yourself apart from them
and   having dressed themselves in you for months
they will be naked and half in shadow as you close the door

– where you find yourself catching your breath. McMillan captures the vulnerability that close relationships bring in many of their different forms.

The third section ‘degradation’ deals with death, whether literal or metaphorical, and again ties into ideas of masculinity and how men are expected to face death in a society that equates masculinity with bravery and stoicism.

For me, however, it was the second section ‘protest of the physical’ which really interested me. This interest was twofold: firstly, in terms of structure, this is the most ambitious section of the collection. Here nine untitled poems – five leading on to a second page; four very short and all beginning with the word ‘graffiti’ interweave moments in relationships, McMillan’s love for the poet Thom Gunn and snapshots of the northern town, Barnsley. The latter is the second thing that interests me, having grown up in Barnsley, like McMillan (although I was born eleven years prior to him). The poems that begin and end the section both start with a crane: ‘lame arm of the crane       circling/unstocked shelves of half built car park’, a nod to the town which still hasn’t recovered from the miner’s strike and Thatcherism (call centres and ASOS and Next warehouses aren’t enough to replace an industry). In the second of the longer pieces, McMillan juxtaposes a relationship – ‘love/is giving everything too easily/then staying to try and claw it back’ – with the decimation of the town – ‘town coughing something up/watching    breathless    as it rolls into a crack in the earth’ – using a structure and a rhythm that echoes the town’s industrial heritage – ‘people were shouldertoshoulder/as in a cage waiting to descend’. It’s no coincidence that the industry the town was built upon is one synonymous with masculinity and that part of the town’s challenge is also that of 21st century men: how to reconcile itself with having that stereotypical, patriarchal view of what a man should be stripped away.

Physical is an interesting, often ambitious, sometimes breath-taking look at love and masculinity. If this is what Andrew McMillan is capable of in his debut collection then I can’t wait to witness the rest of his career.

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As I wrote in a previous post, I was invited to be a shadow judge for this year’s Sunday Times/Peter Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award alongside some other fantastic bloggers including Naomi from TheWritesofWomen. Given that the self-defined mission of her blog is to only cover books by women, I’m very proud to host Naomi’s reviews of the three shortlisted male authors on my blog and it’s interesting what different views she has compared to my own thoughts about the books. If you want to read my review of The Ecliptic click here.

 

Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conway, celebrated artist, is holed up in Portmantle, a retreat on a Turkish island. Directed to this mystery location by her sponsor, she befriends playwright MacKinney, novelist Quickman and architect Pettifer. Into their world arrives seventeen-year-old, Fullerton.

From our very first glimpse of him, we understood that he was one of us. He had the rapid footfalls of a fugitive, the grave hurriedness of a soldier who had seen a grenade drop somewhere in the track behind. We could recognise the ghosts that haunted him because they were the same ghosts we had carried through the gates ourselves and were still trying to excise.

As the quartet keep watch over the troubled youngster, they also battle their own creative demons. Portmantle, Knell explains, exists out of time – as does art – as well as providing a sanctuary where artists can relocate their artistic desires. Each has a failed project which has driven them to the retreat. For Knell it’s a commission for which she was attempting to render The Ecliptic – ‘a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year’ – on a mural for the Willard Observatory.

While the first and third sections of the novel take place at Portmantle, the second takes us back into Knell’s past documenting how she became an artist, her rise to prominence and her relationship with the artist Jim Culvers.

Elspeth’s from a Clydebank family and attends Glasgow School of Art on a scholarship – a detail far more plausible in the 1950s and ’60s of the novel than the present day. There she’s taught by Henry Holden who tells her to ‘Paint what you believe’. When the external assessor finds Elspeth’s blasphemous painting Deputation unworthy of a grade, the school denies her graduation and she goes off to London – thanks to Holden – to be Jim Culvers’ assistant. Holden says it’ll take a while for Culvers to realise she’s better than him. When that does happen, Culvers’ agent sets up Elspeth’s first show.

While at Portmantle, Knell comments on her name:

I always suspected my work was undermined by that label, Elspeth Conway. Did people exact their judgements upon me in galleries when they noticed my name? Did they see my gender on the wall, my nationality, my class, my type, and fail to connect with the truth of my paintings? It is impossible to know. I made my reputation as an artist with this label attached and it became the thing by which people defined and categorised me. I was a Scottish female painter, and thus I was recorded in the glossary of history.

While Knell sees an issue with her name and gender, Wood does something few male novelists do well in portraying her purely as an artist and a human. Knell reads precisely as a female painter because Wood never treats her as one. His focus is on the creative process and her relationships with fellow creatives.

The Ecliptic focuses on the creative process throughout the novel. At Portmantle, Knell and her friends worry that they have lost their abilities. They over analyse their work, attempting – and failing – to recreate past highs, or avoid artistic endeavour altogether. They work in secret, rarely discussing their progress, or lack of it. In the novel’s second – and strongest section – Elspeth learns her craft, encountering the disparity between the public’s, the critics’ and her own views of her work. Wood uses this section to consider the effect on an artist’s confidence and, therefore, their work when external forces begin to exert pressure on the creative process. It’s no surprise that Elspeth, still only twenty-six, struggles to cope.

In his attempt to explore how the creative process works, Wood pulls a sleight of hand on the reader which is revealed in the fourth and final section. At the Young Writer of the Year Award bloggers’ event, Wood said that he knew he was taking a risk with this. Whether or not he pulls it off will, I suspect, depend on the taste of each of the novel’s readers. For me, it was an ambitious – and an interesting – undertaking and I’d rather see a novelist challenge themselves to produce something unusual and difficult than play it safe. Whilst I wasn’t wholly convinced, the very end of the novel is inspired and very clever; it left me feeling that Benjamin Wood is one to watch, I suspect he’s going to produce something very special indeed. 

It was reported on RTE at the beginning of this month that the number of homeless families in Dublin has surpassed 1000 and the number of homeless individuals totals over 5000. The property crash in 2007 created an economic strain on the country which is still being felt today with many people being rendered homeless primarily because rental prices are rising to an unaffordable degree. Writer Kerrie O'Brien has witnessed the increasing amount of people living on the street in Dublin for years. She decided to take action raising money for Simon Communities, one of Ireland's leading homeless charities, by creating and editing the beautiful anthology “Looking at the Stars” which features fiction, poetry and nonfiction by some of Ireland's leading writers. All the money earned from selling this book is going to the Rough Sleeper Team at the Dublin Simon Community.

This writing gives a dynamic look at the condition of homelessness – from inside perspectives of children, families and individuals left without anywhere to live to people working on the front lines assisting those in need to ordinary citizens who witness its effects only peripherally. Not all the writing deals directly with homelessness, but considers different angles of loss, empathy or hope. There are several moving and thoughtful accounts written by people who have experienced homelessness themselves. A piece by Tara Flynn creatively addresses issues of safety and security. Some of the fiction gives vivid depictions of people in need. A mother and her baby are scammed out of money in Sarah Bannan's 'Because Privacy'. The story 'Louise' by Belinda McKeon gives voice to an eleven year old girl living with her family in emergency shelter at a hotel where she must learn the restrictive rules and policies which make them into second class citizens. Whereas Donal Ryan's 'Detached' shows a man trying to care for his family and explain to his children why their house now belongs to an American bank even though it will be left vacant. One of the most vivid accounts of the grimy harsh reality of homelessness comes in Sinéad Gleeson's 'Counting Bridges' which makes you feel the bitter chill and continuous humiliation of living on the street.

Anyone who has spent time in a city encounters homelessness in some form and it always creates a personal dilemma. You can reach out to someone obviously in need by offering some form of support or walk past them. Poetry by Afric McGlinchey confronts this awkward question. Mary O'Donnell considers how the homeless can become merely “shapes” to us. Although we have statistics about homelessness we never know how many people are truly in need because they might not be counted in these collated numbers. Madeline D’Arcy presents the story ‘Census’ about a boy who has gone off the grid, but ironically finds himself being counted anyway. Meanwhile, Jane Casey's tense story ‘Runaways’ shows girls whose home lives have become untenable and embark on an unknown journey. Similarly the protagonist of Danielle McLaughlin's ‘The Woman in the Bowl’ can no endure her home life so takes drastic and much darker action.

More troubling to consider are people in need who are understandably tempestuous from the considerable strain they live under. Colin Barrett presents an intense inner view of an irascible character's thought process when he's plagued by feelings of isolation and feels disconnected from others. Nuala O'Connor's story 'Eulogy' considers the problematic life of a woman who can no longer be saved. Similarly, Jaki McCarrick gives us the point of view of a character who only witnesses the aftermath of a troubled individual's life and recognises how “this sensation of life being weirdly 'alien' must worsen, deepen” when someone is plagued by mental illness or absolute poverty. Dermot Bolger's striking poem considers a more complex meaning for the word home whereas Patrick Cotter's inventive poem 'The View' gives an entirely different perspective.

Issues of faith come up in several pieces in this book. Stephen James Smith's poem ‘Relit Flame’ shows a faithless person seeking solace in a church because he/she has nowhere else to go. Similarly, Mary O'Malley finds that “Habit takes you to an empty church”. In 'Jamie' by Christopher McCaffrey the issue of extreme faith is considered from the perspective of a person who can't stop himself from helping the homeless. The story '1988, Sabina' by Kevin Barry shows how an ordinary object like leather police boots can become something sacred when it takes on a historic and symbolic personal significance.

In a society where the division between the rich and poor is widening it's shocking to consider how ostentatious wealth can sit so smugly alongside cruel poverty. Gerard Smyth looks at the way prized horses receive much better treatment than people in 'The Horses of Kildare'. Anne Enright writes a story about absolute resistance in the face of these untenable gaps in society. Rick O'Shea considers the reality of the situation by looking at developments on a particular street in his piece 'Molesworth Street' where he recognises “We're living in a time where things are going to get harder for those on the margins, not easier.”

It's heartening to see writers take direct action not only be creating an anthology whose profits will go to combat homelessness, but which also make readers consider the issue from so many points of view. As Kerrie O'Brien writes in her introduction “Our government is not doing enough for homelessness – so maybe we all need to do something as individuals – be it a gig, a bake sale, a sponsored run, anything.” Buying this book is certainly a good place to start and reading it will leave you enriched and inspired. You can find out more about this anthology, the Dublin Simon Community and where to purchase the book here: http://www.lookingatthestars.ie/

It’s important for any oppressed minority group to have a physical location where people can come together to socialize, organize and form a sense of identity together. In Saleem Haddad’s striking debut novel that place is a bar called Guapa with its bustling mixed clientele on one level and a more radically charged groups who watch cabaret performances on a lower level. It's interesting how the descriptions of this place feel very recognizable to read about as if it were any gay-friendly bar in Berlin or New York City, but the bar's patrons and the issues they raise when speaking to narrator Rasa are specific to the location. This is within an unnamed Middle Eastern city undergoing extreme political turmoil. The novel follows a day in the life of Rasa, a young gay man who lives with his grandmother and has been working to found a new media company after a period studying in America. As the city teeters on revolt against the authoritarian military regime, closeted Rasa's personal life undergoes its own upheaval having been discovered in bed with his boyfriend/habibi Taymour by his grandmother. This highly engaging story describes with great passion and intelligence how Rasa feels isolated within a society which is divided by Eastern/Western values and straight/gay culture.

Rasa realizes that he's gay during his adolescence and after his first sexual encounter he experiences a divided sense of self which comes from being homosexual in a repressive heterosexual culture: “I was two people now, in two separate realities, where the rules in one were suspended and different from those in the other.” After his father dies from terminal cancer and his mother disappears he's left alone with his loving but conservative grandmother. He goes to university in America where he thinks he'll find the freedom to be himself and hangs a poster of George Michael above his bed. But interestingly he experiences a more intense level of aloneness here - especially because he's in America when the planes crash into the twin towers and he's made more aware of his “otherness”. He describes this with great feeling “I was no longer someone with thoughts and dreams and secrets. I was the by-product of an oppressive culture, an ambassador of a people at war with civilization.” While he struggles to connect with people socially and romantically in America, he does discover authors such as Amin Maalouf, Karl Marx, Partha Chatterjee and Edward Said. Their books introduce him to systems of thought which help give him perspective and better understand the world around him.

Rasa listen's to Oum Kalthoum's sing 'The Ruins' whose lyrics seem especially relevant to his troubled love affair with Taymour

When Rasa moves back to his grandmother's apartment in the Middle East he's determined to help facilitate change within society alongside his friend Maj who stages subversive drag acts. But they encounter many unique problems which make any progress extremely challenging. Maj in particular is frequently beaten and arrested because he's an effeminate man who is vociferous about his political opinions. When Rasa falls for Taymour he wishes to create a secret shared space where they can love in the way they naturally desire. It's moving when he describes how his feelings for Taymour are bound up with feelings for his homeland: “I loved Taymour because he was from here, because everything in him reminded me of everything here, because to love him was to love this city and its history. And yet I couldn’t love him because he was from here and so held ideas of how to be and how to love, which would never fit in with the love that we shared.” The contradictions and divisions in the society around them follow them into the privacy of the bedroom. This is what makes it a tragic love story.

“Guapa” is ultimately an inspiring novel written in a vigorous and convincing voice. Rasa forcefully asserts his individuality outside of any stereotypes or expectations of how any society wants him to conform. It was an immense joy and pleasure to read this book.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSaleem Haddad