The Broken House- Horst Kruger (Bodley Head 2021)

This is the first English translation of a German memoir originally published in 1966 as “Das Zerbrochene Haus” and subtitled “Growing Up Under Hitler”.  In the Afterword the author (who died in 1999) reflects that it was a book which was developed backwards, in a way.  As a journalist in 1964 he was invited to attend the Auschwitz trials.  This forms the closing section of the book and is the most powerful and it was his attendance which caused Kruger to look back on his life.  In the 1960s he was stunned by how perpetrators of unthinkable crimes at the concentration camp had assimilated into society before having to answer for their actions at the trials.  I think if this book had been written more recently this central moment would have been the starting point but back in 1966 Kruger chose to employ a chronological approach which leads from his childhood outside Berlin, in Eichkamp, in an apolitical family where his environment would have made the rise of Adolf Hitler seem even more extraordinary.  Alongside this are the family dramas, the suicide of his oldest sister in 1939 and his own dallying with resistance and its repercussions.

There is a sense of detachment throughout which may feasibly be from the translation but I would imagine it is from the original text which does affect the flow and holds the reader at arm’s length.  There is little of Kruger’s own participation in the hostilities, it jumps to the end of his war, and indeed, this is acknowledged by the author in the Afterword which was written in 1975 and reflects back on the work, but this absence of this part of his life does seem a little odd.

In parts, it is magnificent, especially the second half of the book where Kruger feels to be on more certain ground, the actual growing up under Hitler sections in Eichkamp can feel a little tentative but there admittedly would have been so much that the town’s inhabitants would have been unsure about at the time.  It is not quite the masterpiece I had hoped but the author provides many moments that will linger long in my memory.

The English translation of “The Broken House” is by Shaun Whiteside. The book is published on 17th June 2021. The hardback is published by Bodley Head, the e-book by Vintage Digital. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Little Devil in America – Hanif Abdurraqib (2021)

Ohio resident Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and music critic and is both critically acclaimed and a good commercial proposition in his homeland.  This non-fiction work is something we’ve been seeing a fair bit of recently- a mash-up of memoir and analysis.  At times it feels like a collection of essays but I don’t think it is.  Linking the pieces together is the theme of the black performer in America and coming from that is the significance of dance.  Saying it like this, however, is very much simplifying matters.  Abdurraqib, being a poet sees things in terms of metaphor and the notion of dance and performance is used to touch on many aspects of the American experience, and especially the African-American experience.

Also, being a poet Abdurraqib does not see things the way many of us do, he has the ability to zoom in on a detail and expand out from that.  It’s often a moment in a life he finds fascinating and what it tells us about that particular life and the environment in which it was lived and that in itself is intriguing.  In terms of the performers examined there is a very good range and I find much of his writing illuminating.  With Aretha Franklin, he examines her funeral, and what the “sending home” of the ritual says of a life and then moves backwards to the filmed version of her live gospel recording “Amazing Grace”- the biggest selling gospel live album of all time.  With Whitney Houston he focuses on the response of the black audience and how that changed.  There’s a lively section about the antagonism between two demonstrative performers, Joe Tex and James Brown.  The issue of “blackface” is dealt with through William Lane known as Master Juba who Charles Dickens saw perform and how casual racism caused a latter day TV tribute by Ben Vereen to this black minstrel who performed in blackface to become meaningless because his performance was cut inappropriately. 

People who have not fitted in to what was expected of them are examined including Sammy Davis Jnr, Michael Jackson and the always amazing to read about Josephine Baker.

This is where this book is the strongest for me, a white British reader, I can see the common threads and follow the arguments.  When the author veers away from this central theme I miss the tightness of the structure although I am still impressed by the writing.

And the writing is impassioned, creative, energetic and very often enthralling.  Culturally, very few will get all the references initially because of the broad timescale Abdurraqib employs in this work.  If this looseness of structure and digressive style which I have mentioned before (most recently in “Gay Bar” by Jeremy Atherton Lin) is going to become commonplace I’m just going to have to get used to it because to ignore it would mean missing out on impressive, quality writing.

A Little Devil in America was published in the UK by Allen Lane on 30th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out – Jeremy Atherton Lin (Granta 2021)- A Rainbow Read

I really liked the premise of this non-fiction work.  Jeremy Atherton Lin explores, largely via memoir, the significance of the gay bar in the forging of the LGBTQ+ community, bringing with it a sense of belonging.  At a time when bars and pubs and nightclubs have greatly diminished in number and where the survival of those left is threatened by extended lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions it is important that we recognise these venues as part of our LGBTQ+ history, our present and hopefully, our future.

The author focuses on those places he knows well beginning in more or less present day South London, moving to the Los Angeles of his college days, back to London where he meets his long-term partner, referred to as Famous Blue Raincoat, to San Francisco where the two set up home together returning to London once civil partnerships becomes legal here, with a brief sojourn to the bars of Blackpool.

This book is strongest when it is dealing with history.  Initially, we are plunged graphically into the sleaze of the cruising bars in Vauxhall and then on to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, an institution for generations, which does deserve its own thorough examination and the author does well to bring this extraordinary venue to life.  I used to frequent it regularly over 30 years ago and memories and the unique feel of the place is evoked by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s writing.

The focus on all the bars is great, I enjoyed the author’s perception of them at the time when he was frequenting them.  It is no fault of his, obviously, but you often get the sense that he has missed the boat, time-wise.  The LA of his college days is a pale shadow of its heyday, ravaged by the decimation of the gay population through AIDS and in most of the other areas he is visiting places past their prime.  This is due to chronology but in many ways it feels typical of the gay bar set-up, on a quiet night there will always be someone to tell you how busy it was the night before!

The author broadens his focus to encompass, well everything, and this is where the book slips for me.  He has much to say about the gay experience and it is extremely worth saying but it’s a scattergun approach of digressions and the books loses the structure I was enjoying so much initially.  It becomes a mish-mash of history, of gay culture, of memoir, of essay.  I would have got more out of the memoir aspect if I felt I knew more about the author and Famous but I was kept very much at arm’s length, which for biography doesn’t work that well for me.

 I do think that there is a tremendous book hidden in here with some extremely quotable passages which sum up the gay nightlife experience better than I’ve ever read.  Here are a couple of examples:

“It dawned on me that many of the people we used to know to say hello to we never really knew.  We just enjoyed recognizing faces.”

“Gays can relax in a gay bar, people will say, but I went out for the tension in the room.

“We once flattered ourselves that all popular culture was subversively designed to amuse gay men.  It’s become apparent gay men are there to make popular culture amusing to everybody else”.

And with February’s LGBT+ History Month just behind us he quotes Michael Warner from “The Trouble With Normal” (1999), which is another reminder why our stories still need to be told;

“In the queer world memory is very fragile.  You don’t learn from your parents how the gay world is structured.  So there’s not a whole lot of intergenerational transfer.”

I think that this is a significant work but for me it was a little overpowering in its structure, the many elements did not mesh as well as I had hoped, so it just misses out on being a book I would want to keep on my bookshelves.  Just occasionally I wonder if I am too harsh in my judgements and that time will see a book linger in my memory, displaying a lasting power that I had not anticipated.  This might be one such book where I could become convinced to revise my opinion.  The audience for it is niche but that audience would certainly be drawn in by Jeremy Atherton Lin’s attack and relish of his subject.

Gay Bar was published by Granta on 4th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Dutiful Boy- Mohsin Zaidi (2020) – A Rainbow Read

With February being LGBT+ History Month in the UK it is still important that stories are being heard.  Coming out tales and the path to self-acceptance still have a fairly essential part to play for each new generation and in recent years we have seen accounts from those under-represented whose lives and backgrounds add a different dimension.  Some very welcome additions to this genre of writing have come from the Muslim community with 2019’s award winning “Unicorn” by Amrou Al-Kadhi and now this account subtitled “A memoir of a gay Muslim’s journey to acceptance” by LGBT+ activist and top criminal barrister Mohsin Zaidi. This is another of the titles that I have now got round to from my What I Should Have Read In 2020 post.

The most striking thing about the author is his tenacity and ability to never give up when the odds are very much stacked against him.  From a devout Shia Islam background with Pakistani parents and growing up in Walthamstow he showed early educational promise. As his family was unable to navigate the private school system he found himself in a secondary school where achievement was denigrated by his peers but somehow ended up as the first person from his school to go to Oxford University, studying Law.  There this East London Pakistani boy floundered amongst the rich and privileged before finding his own tribe – a group of friends who had some idea of where he had come from and who he was but they did not know the secret that he thought he would never be able to reveal, that he was gay.

For Mohsin, having the family find out would bring shame and probable disowning with his family’s disgrace spreading out into their wider community even affecting his younger brothers’ marriage prospects.  In order to function he has to shift away from his family’s values and religious beliefs to find his true self before opening himself back up to the cataclysm he believed was waiting for him should his sexuality be revealed.

It’s an incredibly difficult option, especially given the closeness of the relationship with his family which he at one point describes in a really effective metaphor. “Baby carriers provide the option of placing the infant so that he or she faces the parent or looks out, facing the world.  I imagined that most parents would choose to let their child see the world, whereas mine preferred I see only them.”

We know from the subtitle that there will be some movement towards resolution but it takes years and when it does come in some powerful scenes which signpost the way I found myself misting up.

I do feel that Mohsin Zaidi has fitted so much into his 35 years that there is a tendency at time to skim over the surface.  There are points in the book where I wanted more detail which would help us to really connect with the man/boy behind the situations.  I could tell here was a logical brain used to laying out the facts as befitting his professional status and his is a very welcome voice in British gay writing.

At times he can really hit home with a couple of sentences and I am going to leave the last words to him which makes for sobering reading and explains once again why our stories and LGBT+ History Month are so important.  Commenting on reports that the perpetrator of the 2016 Orlando gay bar shootings which killed 49 had pledged allegiance to ISIS prior to the event and was motivated by his disgust of his own sexual urges Mohsin says: “I had felt this hatred once.  Maybe if we weren’t raised to hate ourselves it would be easier not to hate the world.”

A Dutiful Boy was published in hardback by Square Peg in 2020.

Hungry – Grace Dent (Mudlark 2020) – A Real Life Review

I know who Grace Dent is.  I occasionally read her restaurant reviews in The Guardian and in other publications over the years and she generally makes me laugh.  I know her as a talking head on nostalgia programmes reminiscing about a biscuit or forgotten gem of Children’s TV. I don’t know much more than that about her but my interest was certainly piqued by the arrival of this work.  Subtitled “A memoir of wanting more”, when I finished it I was the one who was certainly wanting more.

Grace won me over from the Epigraph which conveys the wisdom of Coronation Street’s Ena Sharples circa 1965; “When I was a little lass, the world was half a dozen streets, an’ a bit of waste land, an’ the rest was all talk.”  Grace’s all talk is an upbringing in Carlisle and the importance food played in her working class Cumbrian home runs throughout as she develops a palate from the tinned Fray Bentos pie to unimaginably posh food at top London restaurants.  As Grace moves into a world of journalism, London magazines, working with Piers Morgan (life’s not always a bowl of cherries, I suppose) she remains the girl who swung around lampposts waiting to be called in for her tea.

Her relationship with family is beautifully conveyed, especially her parents and particularly her Dad as he begins to slip away from them with dementia which as the book moves towards the present day has a potent pull on Grace’s priorities. 

It is full of superb observations on life and the recalling of the 80’s and 90’s is palpable.  I relished her reflections, such as the most significant person in eighties Cumbria being the woman who worked in the big Asda in Carlisle with the price reduction gun.  I like a memoir where the writer carries you along establishing points of common contact and yet telling their own story and I think Grace Dent does this brilliantly here. 

I haven’t enjoyed a food-based memoir as much since Nigel Slater’s “Toast” (2003) and like that book it is the people fuelled by the food who really are memorable.

Hungry was published by Mudlark on 29th October 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

To Be A Gay Man – Will Young (2020) – A Real Life Review

I am a big Will Young fan.  A quick scan down my 100 Essential CD lists would illustrate this with his “From Now On” at #52, “Friday’s Child at #54 and “The Hits” compilation at #58.  He is somebody who I have written about a lot and who over the last 18 years has established himself as a significant national figure and especially within the cultural history of British LGBTQ+ issues.  This book is an inevitable choice for me to want to read soon after publication.

Some may be surprised by Will’s unflinchingly honest, forthright tone in this book but those of us who have listened to the “Homosapiens” podcast which he started with friend Chris Sweeney (I’ve gone through every edition with Will and Chris, the current series sees Will on sabbatical with Alan Cummings now alongside Chris) will be aware that the issues raised in this book are of great importance to the author.

Will has been upfront in the past about mental health issues and here deals with the notion of “gay shame” which for most of his life has overwhelmed him, threatening his ability to function.  Will very impressively explains the ways this becomes internalised, often at a very young age, in LGBTQ+ individuals and offers his strategies he has over time employed to help.

I did start off being slightly puzzled as to the extent of Will’s agonies over gay shame.  I am older than him and closer to the time when being gay was still considered a crime in the UK and grew up in a time when the only visible people who may have felt like I did (although this was never acknowledged by them at the time) were the camp comedians such as Kenneth Williams, John Inman, Larry Grayson and Frankie Howerd, none of whom were especially good candidates for the title of role model.  This history of LGBTQ+ culture is very well accounted for in Paul Flynn’s 2017 “Good As You”, my review of which can be read here.

In fact, it was really only when Russell Davies’ “Queer As Folk” was aired and Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will himself conquering the first season of “Pop Idol” that gay men could recognise something of themselves being portrayed.  Although Will seemed at the time an ideal, positive role model he was still grappling with the issues and shame of being gay which had been projected upon him by society and as a visible representation of a gay man he suffered considerable shocking homophobia from members of the public and in the media.  Will is right to air these here including the DJ Chris Moyles, the Mail Newspaper and correct once again to revisit the Mail’s hateful inclusion of an article on the death of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately which is the reason why I will never pick up a copy of that newspaper again.  Incidentally, those most likely to suffer homophobia are young straight men who often in the form of “banter” have to face more putdowns and questioning of their sexuality than their gay male counterparts.

As well as being an honest and sensitive work this is extremely thought-provoking.  It made me wish I was part of an LGBTQ+ book group (or in fact any book group could valuably discuss this) to further explore the issues raised as it would be fascinating to hear others’ perspectives in the safe environment that such a group should provide. I may not have agreed with everything Will raises here but there is no doubt how his personal issues regarding being a gay man have caused a considerable struggle and his willingness to air these issues to help others is to be highly commended.

To Be A Gay Man was published in September 2020 by Virgin Books.

The Shapeless Unease – Samantha Harvey (2020) – A Real Life Review

Novelist Samantha Harvey endured a year of insomnia and this is her account of that time.  As well as the physical act of not sleeping, the dilemma of whether to stay in bed becoming increasingly anxious or getting up to wander frustratedly or do jigsaws is her inevitable examination of why she had forgotten how to sleep.

I had to time this book carefully into my reading schedule.  I was aware of it during the national lockdown but felt that by reading it then Harvey’s insomnia might be contagious at a time when the balance between sleep and anxious tossing and turning was precarious.  In my head it just seemed to follow nicely after the thriller I have just read “Before I Go To Sleep” where the lead character’s restful nights wipes her memory clean.  There’s a superstitious literary balance going on here.

Samantha Harvey’s lack of sleep causes her to address guilt, loss, death and her past.  She also inserts parts of an unresolved short story.  At 176 pages it can be read in a couple of hours (I made sure they were daylight hours).  Her writing is enthralling and makes me want to seek out her four novels.  After finishing it I felt less convinced as to her motive behind the book than when I started it, it flows in a nebulous way like the dreams she was largely missing out on. I like the story of a man who robs a cash machine which creeps in from time to time but am not sure what it is doing here.  It is the quality of the writing I will remember this book for rather than the work as a whole.  There’s a story from her past regarding a dog which would keep me awake at night and I did enjoy her writing in her accounts of doctors’ appointments where on one occasion, a plea for a blood test led to a rebuke of “This is not a shop”.  I could appreciate her reaction to those people who tried to make helpful suggestions (sleep hygiene?) and her search for answers.  Ultimately, she concludes “This is the cure for insomnia – no things are fixed.  Everything passes, this too”. This seems more potent than prescription remedies and therapy but, boy, did she have to struggle to get to this viewpoint.

The Shapeless Unease was published by Jonathan Cape in 2020.

Mama’s Boy – Dustin Lance Black (2019) – A Real Life Review

In the UK Dustin Lance Black is best known for being the husband of Olympic diver and national treasure Tom Daley but anyone expecting this memoir to be an examination of their relationship is going to be disappointed.  Tom barely features (although his importance in Black’s life is both acknowledged and shines through).  The author who won an Oscar for his screenplay “Milk” in 2009 even pushes himself and his career left of centre as this memoir has a different principal character- his mother Rose Anne.

Hers is a story of survival through sheer determination.  She contracted polio as an infant and spent her whole childhood in hospitals, away from home, defying doctors and not allowing anything to limit her life choices.  Medical opinion said childbirth would kill her yet she had three sons and Dustin (Lance to friends and family) certainly inherited similar drive.  Mother found support in the strong community of the Mormon Church but by the age of six, young Lance knew his sexuality would cause a major conflict which he truly believed their relationship would never recover from.

The author’s drive led him to a highly promising film career and that Oscar for “Milk” (If you have never seen this film it is magnificent) yet he eschews this to devote time to activism, becoming one of the leading players in overturning California’s discriminatory gay marriage ruling, developing from a chronically shy, almost mute introverted child to speaking on huge public platforms and dealing with threats and bigotry.

But it is the relationship between mother and son which sparked a whole range of emotions in me – at times I felt tearful, angry, baffled, delighted the list goes on and this is why this book ticks every box for how a memoir should be written.  Relationships are complex and this illustrates that perfectly.  Time moves on and the boy turns into a man but there’s still the pull of family and mother and it is recorded in a strikingly honest way.  If this was a novel I’d really be praising the author in his skill at getting us to really know the characters.  I have read some memoirs with no great sense of even the person writing it but this is certainly not the case here.

I think it is hard for us Brits to understand the pull of religions like The Church Of The Latter Day Saints in parts of America and some of the workings of the US legal system seem bewildering but the rest of the world is now well used to being bewildered by America.

I thought this was a marvellous book, a little intense and very thorough but I would imagine that would match the nature of the author pretty well.  It is written with great sensitivity and his desire to introduce his mother to the world demands a large readership.  I don’t think this book has yet got the attention it deserves.  Its nature suggests a lasting classic which should continue to inspire generations.  It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize (as have a number of the books I have read “”Life As A Unicorn” (retitled since I read it) and “The Confessions of Frannie Langton for first book awards and “This Brutal House” in the main category alongside this book).  This is an award to celebrate the best in LGBTQ+ writings and “Mama’s Boy” would be a very deserving winner.

Mama’s Boy was published in 2019 by John Murray.

Memorial Drive – Natasha Trethewey (Harper Collins 2020) –  A Real Life Review

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Subtitled “A Daughter’s Memoir” this is an account which needed to be shared by ex US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning Natasha Trethewey.  In 1985, when Natasha was nineteen her mother, Gwen Grimmette, was murdered by her ex-husband after ten years of domestic abuse and a period of extremely chilling stalking and threats.

This is Natasha’s attempts to both celebrate her mother and come to terms with her demise.  Towards the end she states: “The whole time I have been working to tell this story, I have done so incrementally, parsing it so that I could bear it; neat, compartmentalized segments that have allowed me to carry on these three decades without falling apart.” This is also the approach she takes in her writing of it, a not totally chronological account which moves from dreams to observations to moments of their lives but at the backbone there is a story of a girl brought up in Mississippi, a mixed race child, loved by her mother’s family with whom she lives amongst with her white Canadian University Professor father gradually drifting away from her.

In the early 1970’s Mum makes a break from the supportive family and moves to Atlanta where she meets the wrong guy.  Part of the account is a physical revisiting thirty years after the event, there’s a fascinating visit to a medium and a chance encounter which leads Trethewey to possessing the case notes.

Throughout the work there is the inevitable build-up to the murder, brought home shockingly for the reader through complete transcriptions of telephone calls.  The police were monitoring the situation aware of the step-father’s threats but acted too slowly to save her mum.

The sense of loss and ongoing pain is evident throughout and any real sense of celebration of her mother’s life is dampened by her eventual fate.  There’s an extraordinary calmness which both distances the reader from the events and drives them on through the text.  It is a hauntingly tragic read but it is ultimately inspiring in the author’s quest to move on some way from this inexplicable crime.

four-star

Memorial Drive was published in July 2020.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Broken Greek- Pete Paphides (2020) – A Real Life Review

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Music Journalist Pete Paphides has taken me off into a time machine with this memoir of his childhood.  It felt like I was back in the 70’s and early 80’s as he recreates the Acocks Green area of Birmingham so vividly and with excellent recall.  Running alongside his memories (and no doubt enhancing them greatly as there is nothing like music to recreate past times) is what is amounts to a soundtrack of his young life.

Paphides was the second son of Greek-Cypriot parents who had come over to Birmingham and soon found themselves running chip shops.  His father never lost the intense yearning to go back to Cyprus and only listened to music from his homeland which the young Takis found intense and mournful.  (His father shifted a little when Abba and Boney M came along).  His son attempted to make sense of his position in a culture different to his parents but struggled and became an elective mute speaking only to parents, his brothers and the occasional teacher when no other children were around.  His brother introduced him to the telephone Dial-A-Disc service which became a bit of an early obsession with him not quite able to process the magic of hearing The Rubettes’ “Sugar Baby Love” through the phone line.  Lack of self-esteem led him to think his parents didn’t want him and that they would return to Cyprus without him leading him to select Eurovision winners The Brotherhood Of Man as his substitute family.

Eventually Takis starts speaking, calls himself Peter in order to feel more of a part of school life and thus begins his struggle to be accepted by a father too busy with the demands of his business and also by those at school. He used music constantly as his crutch becoming obsessed with Top Of The Pops, chart positions (I can identify with this) and Abba and eventually seeing the gang of outsiders who were Dexy’s Midnight Runners as possible salvation.

I really enjoyed this.  It is enhanced by Paphides’ almost total recall of the era which gets so detailed (I don’t know if this is just memory, heaps of research or a bit of embroidering but it feels totally authentic). A lot of it will resonate to anyone growing up at the time but the author’s cultural and racial background gives it a fascinating slant.  Like all the best memoirs it feels both tragic and funny and oh so honest.  Many works of this era feel like wannabe memoirs, adopting what are now with hindsight seen as highlights of the culture.  You can’t get better than the young Pete’s obsession with pop comedy group The Barron Knights (until he gets to see them live) a section which is so realistic and so touchingly written and says volumes about the times in which we were living.  I have talked to people more about this book whilst reading it than I would usually do which is a good sign of the impression it has made upon me.  Definitely recommended.

four-star

Broken Greek was published in hardback by Quercus in March 2020.